Updated: May 24, 2022
I cannot ignore my deeply seeded concern for this latest of social phenomenons. When the teacher’s lounge conversation turned to the recent public outrage regarding a Super Bowl ad for Coca Cola the other day at lunch, I pretty much tuned most of it out. I don’t like hearing negativity; I’d rather not even know about it most of the time. If you haven’t seen it, the commercial showcases the song America the Beautiful which starts out in English and then continues in several different languages. Pushing it to the back of my mind, I logged into my facebook account later that day and noticed that one of my friends had posted a rather humorous article from The New Yorker making light of the public outrage over the ad. I was glad that, perhaps, people were not taking this supposed “attack on Americans,” as some viewed it, seriously. Then I read some of the comments under my friend’s post and my heart sank. The first one said “My problem with the ad is not that there are languages other than English. To quote Geico, ‘everyone knows that’. What I did not like is that they took the song ‘America’ which should be sung in English and had people sing it in other languages. We live in America and we speak English.” Maybe it’s because I teach a foreign language for a living, or because I’ve set a personal goal to inspire reverence and respect for other languages and cultures that this comment really struck me somewhere deep. Hearing someone actually trying to justify these horribly misinformed notions of why the ad was offensive bothered me immensely. In fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the afternoon, just couldn’t shake it.
Here are my thoughts on this Coke ad. First of all the thing was beautiful. I mean really stunning, gave me goosebumps (I know it’s just a Coke ad but whatever). Second, why can’t America the Beautiful be sung in languages besides English? The United States has no official language. Certainly most Americans speak English. So why hasn’t the government gone ahead and declared English the official language of the United States? Because that isn’t who we are, it isn’t where we came from, and it isn’t what makes us beautiful. America is, and always has been a “melting pot.” If you’ve forgotten the old metaphor that is, to this day, drilled into the head of every 5th grader across the nation, it means that many different people from various cultures and speaking various languages have come together to create the American “culture.” Like putting a bunch of different types of cheese into a pot and turning the burner on. What happens? The mozzarella, the cheddar, the Swiss, the brie and Havarti, they all melt together into something entirely new. That is who we are, a giant lump of some new, unknown type of cheese that I’m sure is delicious. If you are having a hard time accepting other cultures and, an important facet of that, other languages, then you are just plain living in the wrong country.
Not to mention, if you are complaining about the use of other languages in America, you are discriminating against your own family. Think about it, unless you are of 100% British decent, your ancestors once spoke a language other than English in America. Does that mean they aren’t “American?” Does that then make you “un-American?” I’m going to go ahead and guess that most Americans are not 100% British unless they immigrated very recently (in which case how does that make them any more American than a family that has been here for 300 years? Really that just makes them more British). Some of my ancestors immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1690. They could not speak English when they arrived and, I’m sure, they were discriminated against at first. My great great great great great grandfather (that’s five greats), Conrad Hildebrand, came from this line of immigrants. He fought in the Revolutionary War (does it get much more American than that?) and he spoke… German! In fact he was elected to the House of Commons in 1795 and again in 1797 because he was able to read and write well in both English and German. The language discrimination certainly existed hundreds of years ago. I am sure eyes were rolled and chins were lifted when walking past newly arrived Italian immigrants in the streets of 19th century New York City. But why? They have something to bring to the pot (perhaps a tasty Parmesan?) and why shouldn’t they be proud of their language? They are part of us and we are part of them. More concerning to me, why are we still discriminating in this way several hundreds of years later? It’s called acceptance. Or maybe it’s called love. I am saddened to see very little of it in the hearts of my countrymen and women.
One final point, speaking a foreign language is immensely beneficial to you as an individual. Just as Conrad Hildebrand was elected to the House of Commons because he was bilingual and, therefore, a more valuable candidate for the position, speaking multiple languages can open up countless doors for a person. It is really a very American thing to be content with only speaking one language. “I don’t need to speak Spanish, we speak English in America!” What a cop out. According to Forbes, only 18.5% of Americans report speaking another language while 47.8% of Europeans can speak multiple languages. Causing a stir about something as innocent as a Coca Cola commercial only serves to continue this very American idea that we are too good to speak any language other than English when, in reality, maybe we are just too stupid to try. As far as knowledge of languages, and, quite honestly, acceptance of human differences, goes, Americans are embarrassingly behind our European counterparts. How about this, save all that time you’ve spent complaining about TV commercials and put it towards learning another language. Then maybe you will begin to truly understand what makes America “the Beautiful.”
The coke add that caused such a stir
A word from former President Barack Obama on foreign language, or the lack thereof, in the United States