The language gap

first_imgAt a Los Angeles movie theater recently, the predominantly African-American audience cheered throughout “Akeelah and the Bee,” a wonderful fairy tale about an 11-year-old black girl who takes command of her life by taking command of the English language. “Akeelah” was released nationwide on the same day that President George W. Bush struck a nerve by dismissing a Spanish-language version of the national anthem. The controversy re-ignited when the Senate approved one bill making English the country’s “national language” and another calling for the government to “preserve and enhance the role of English as the common and unifying language of America.” Amid the current immigration controversy, such statements can seem condescending and racist, especially when promoted by whites. But they carry truth nonetheless. I once saw a banner in South Los Angeles complaining, “English = Whites Only.” I beg to differ: English = Good for Everyone. My father, from a rural Pakistani village, looks back with minimal regret on not teaching his own children his native Urdu tongue. “I never wanted my children to be behind other children in any way,” he would tell me years later. “It would be OK if you did not learn Urdu, but I wanted you to speak perfect English, so that you wouldn’t be second-class in the classroom compared to the white children.” Sociologists would note that my parents were like many other first-generation immigrants, willing to trade off cultural background for children’s welfare. Undocumented Mexican immigrants have for various reasons not always made the same tradeoff; but for activists to discourage them from doing so is to ignore such families’ best long-term interests. America is the nation that we immigrants chose to pursue, for the sake of opportunity. Yet, such opportunity only exists if we choose to employ the tools at hand within this country. “Akeelah” was not the first movie in recent years to celebrate English as the quintessential American tool for success. The 2003 documentary “Spellbound” was, as its title suggests, a spellbinding depiction of several children’s efforts to achieve spelling-bee glory. A number of the children were of Indian, Mexican or African ancestry, whose families understood the power of excelling in America’s common language. By capturing this, the documentary served as a stirring testament to America’s greatness. The notion of a separate national anthem sung in Spanish, one with altered lyrics about “breaking chains,” defeats the whole idea of being one nation. It is an unfortunate new example of what historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who was special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, decried as a “cult of ethnicity,” a cult that “belittles unum and glorifies pluribus.” Nation-states that house different regions with different dominant languages often suffer through separatist movements. If you force such groups to cohere when they don’t share a common language or culture, resentment mounts then come the protests, kidnappings, violence and strife. It happens far away in my Pakistani homeland, it happens next door in Quebec. It is liberalism’s noble compulsion to sniff out injustices such as racism and classism. But in this case, it is deeply unhelpful to characterize English as a weapon of the white man. For white and brown alike, English is our friend, not our enemy. And no matter how proudly you sing the national anthem, if you sing it in another language, you are not celebrating American unity. Our goal need not be about a cramming a white man’s language down the throats of immigrants. Social critic Neil Postman observed that English is the most diverse language of all, comprising words from every corner of the globe. Appreciating it helps us appreciate our cultural variety while reminding us of our unity. E Pluribus Unum, indeed: Out of Many, One. Rob Asghar is a writer based in Los Angeles. His Web site is www.AmericaBug.Typepad.com. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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