The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

February 6, 2014

Americans speak the language of diversity

ENID, Okla. — It was the beginning of a cruise through the Mediterranean, departing from Barcelona, Spain.

My bride and I had just flown overnight, we were tired, we were cranky (well, I was cranky), and we were standing in line to check in and board the ship.

Ahead of us in line were five older people, three men and two women, all bearing the dark complexion of those from south Asia. They were holding up the line wrestling with several pieces of luggage, all the while talking loudly among themselves in some language I didn’t understand.

I thought to myself I hoped we didn’t run into this disruptive group too often during the course of the trip, if at all.

That evening, there we were, fighting the urge to fall into bed and snooze of the jet lag, but instead heading to the main dining room for dinner.

We were seated at a table for 10. There was my bride and myself, another couple and a single woman. Five chairs were empty.

Suddenly, they were filled by none other than the noisy foreign quintet from the check-in line.

Oh great, I thought. But kept my mouth shut.

After the waiter had taken our orders, it was time to introduce ourselves, which was followed by the question, “Where are you from?”

To which one of the foreign people who had been holding up the line at check-in said, “We are from America.”

The fact of it was surprising enough, but the obvious pride with which the words were spoken was positively jarring.

The five were, it turns out, born and raised in India. There were two married couples and a widower. The three men had been classmates at an engineering school in their native country. But all were naturalized American citizens, who came here to continue their education and for the opportunity this country afforded them.

Over the course of the cruise we became fast friends, and we remain in contact to this day, though, sadly, one member of their group has passed away in the interim.

They were and are as American as anybody I know, and more staunchly patriotic than most.

I thought of these wonderful people Sunday when I watched the Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl, the one featuring “America the Beautiful,” sung in seven different languages.

The ad did not place in one of the top 10 spots on USA Today’s ad meter ratings of Super Bowl commercials, and was not well received by many.

Social media lit up in the wake of the spot’s airing, many posts and Tweets taking exception with the ad.

“Speak English or go home,” read one post on Coke’s Facebook page. “Screwed up a beautiful song. No Coke for my family,” read another.

A Tweet from a woman in Bixby read, “Hey @CocaCola, this is America. English, please.” Another read “Hey #coke we speak English in America. Awful commercial.”

The United States has no official language, though 28 states (including Oklahoma) list English as their official tongue.

According to a 2009 Census Bureau survey, 80 percent of Americans say English is their primary language, while 12.4 percent claim Spanish.

Some 95 percent of Americans say they speak English well or very well.

But the list of languages spoken in this country is a long and varied one.

Of people responding to the 2011 American Community Survey, 37.6 percent said they spoke Spanish in their homes, followed by Chinese (2.8 percent), Hindi, Urdu or other Indic (2.2 percent), French (2.1 percent), Tagalog (1.7 percent), Vietnamese (1.4 percent), German (1.2 percent) and Korean (1.1 percent).

And that list doesn’t include Russian, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, Czech, Hebrew, Cambodian, Swedish, Creole French, Hawaiian or any of the various native American languages.

The ad was not promoting the abandonment of English, but a reminder that speaking English doesn’t make someone an American any more than being able to read a prescription label makes one a doctor.

America is not vanilla pudding, rather it is a rich, spicy, savory stew whose flavor is tinged by ingredients imported from different parts of the world.

America was founded by immigrants, expanded by immigrants (sadly, often on the backs of our native brethren) and built by immigrants. Nothing has changed, only the faces of those seeking a better life on these shores.

“America the Beautiful” is a stirring patriotic anthem based on a poem penned in the late 19th century by Katharine Lee Bates, and set to the music of Samuel A. Ward in the early 20th.

“Oh beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress, a thoroughfare for freedom beat, across the wilderness. America, America, God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law,” the second verse tells us.

 Beautiful words indeed, no matter the language.

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.

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