With the upcoming election, and political tension increasing, I thought it might be a fun little adventure to embark on the topic of immigration.
First and foremost, while the subject of linguistics is not a pressing matter in and of itself for many people, I feel it's important to understand that it is quite pervasive. It's something we all do. We all speak a certain way and form judgements about people who don't speak similarly to us. I'm guilty of this as well: for a very long time, I viewed people who had Southern accents as less intelligent, because I had formed some sort of baseless equation in my head that stated "Southern = close minded and uneducated". And then, because karma's a bitch, I found myself in a situation where I was surrounded on all sides by some lovely people from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and I changed my outlook. Not only are they lovely, they are smart and talented and I'm a better person having known them. Since then, I've tried very hard not to form judgements about people before I'm aware of who they actually are.
Which is something we learn as kids, right? "Don't judge a book by its cover" (something I'm also guilty of). "Treat others the way you want to be treated." "Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes, that way, when you judge them, you're a mile away from them, and you have their shoes." The list goes on and on.
So it's confusing to me when I hear SO MANY PEOPLE bashing immigrants for not speaking fluent American English. Sure, English is the standard language in the United States for legislation and media consumption, but, and I think this would shock some people, we don't actually have an official national language here. SURPRISE! Something about your huddled masses yearning to breathe free and maybe not really having the time or the resources to gain native-like proficiency in a Level 5 language in a super short amount of time, or whatever. What is that word, "yearning"? It reflects desperation and necessity. You can even take out "free" and it would be "huddled masses yearning to breathe." If I'm yearning to breathe, I probably don't have all the time in the world to run through Rosetta Stone so as not to irritate the culture I'm so desperate to partake in out of necessity. If someone is "yearning to breathe free," our reaction should really be more along the lines of, "oh, shit, this is urgent."
Let's be really clear on something here: learning another language is hard. It's not just learning new words. It's learning a new set of grammatical rules. It's learning how to be competent in a culture other than your own, which many would say is harder the older you get. It's like being really really great at oil painting, and then being handed some watercolors and no instructions on how to use them. Paint everywhere. Words everywhere. And in the US, the standard (although that seems to be changing, insha'Allah) is monolingualism. We learn foreign languages here because we choose to. There is nothing pushing us to learn another culture, because for the most part, we live in our little privileged bubbles. We are a large country. I can get in a car for a day and a half and drive somewhere, and still understand what people are saying. On a global scale, we are quite isolated. In places like Europe, that is not the case. Many people are bi- or multilingual, and that's the standard.
I think something that people fail to take into account is that the US is the Land of the Allegedly Free, and there are so many promises about golden opportunities and American dreams, that of course we're going to have people come here if their home country is no longer suiting their needs. I'm using that term broadly, by the way, I'm not talking about people who don't get access to wifi everywhere, I'm talking about people who don't have the ability to feel safe when they go outside. Leaving your home country because you aren't guaranteed the right to life is not a great situation, and in that situation, people don't just learn English because it's "fun" and they "want a new challenge". Those people learn what English they can in a relatively short amount of time out of necessity. Frankly, the fact that I don't HAVE to learn another language if I don't want to is the epitome of privilege, in my mind.
Let's take Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, for example. Apparently Mother Nature really pissed off Patricia, because she was on the war path. At work, we often have the news on one of our TVs, and one of our regulars came in last week. (Just to paint a picture for you, this woman is a career dog walker, wears soft pink sweaters and a fanny pack every day, is the embodiment of Delores Umbridge from the "Harry Potter" series, and doesn't tip well. I'm not a huge fan.) This woman looked up at the report about the hurricane and expressed how horrible she feels for those poor people down there in the path of the hurricane. Luckily, the hurricane dissipated and was downgraded to a tropical depression. While flooding and landslide concerns still remain, the damage was comparatively small. But what if it wasn't? What if it annihilated several towns, as was predicted? After the dust settled, many people would have to relocate, and the US would probably have a slightly increased amount of Mexican immigrants. Those people wouldn't necessarily speak English. For context, the same woman expressing her remorse for the potential victims of Hurricane Patricia had previously expressed her frustration and disgust that people would dare set foot in this country without speaking fluent "American". My question is, where does the remorse end and the disgust begin? It seems that this woman would feel bad about any fatalities, but the second refugees start coming in and SLIGHTLY inconveniencing her, the attitude shifts more towards one of xenophobia.
SO. On to the linguistic meat of the issue: what exactly does it mean when people say "speak American"?
Well, what is "America"? We have North America and South America, and those are continents with several languages spoken. So let's take American English out of the equation for now: we're left with Mexican dialects of Spanish, Canadian dialects of French, South American dialects of French, South American dialects of Dutch, South American dialects of Spanish, and South American dialects of Portuguese. There are also hundreds of indigenous languages available to choose from. But for some reason, those don't fall under the umbrella term "American".
Interestingly enough, if I speak English, which is also inherently NOT American, as it is from Europe, I'm not marked as being different from my peers. My peers do not speak Native American languages. What WOULD be odd, though, is if I started speaking Cree, or Ojibwe, or Cherokee. What if I spoke the native language of my Iroquois ancestors? Would I be told to "go back to my country", and then have to justify myself to my accuser that I AM in my country? How annoying and dehumanizing it must have been to have had to learn English in order to make things more convenient for the people invading your land. I can't imagine having someone break into my house to steal some white wine, only to ask that I refrigerate it first, and by the way, if I could just cook up a flank steak right quick, that'd be great. While Native American languages are about as American as it gets, they still aren't considered "American" by the people who claim that everyone here should speak "American".
So what is? English?
Well, that depends. If my Australian pen pal moved here, his English and my English would be very different. His English would likely not be considered American. However, my theory is that he would be marked as the "good" kind of different, because he's white, so his accent would be "cool" and "unique". Which it is, no doubt, but I don't think he'd be told to "go back to his country" as often as, say, someone from Paraguay or Nigeria. But his speech would still not be considered "American". Whenever we talk there are usually at least a few words that I have to ask him about.
What if my friend from Manchester, UK moved here? It was the same situation, with yet another dialect of English. Beyond English, there were cultural differences as well, such as being presented with a list of teas at Starbucks rather than just being able to order "tea". He didn't speak "American" enough, although he did speak at an acceptable level, and I should hope so, actually, since he hails from where it all began. If anything, I spoke TOO American, and my English wasn't English ENOUGH. He would also be "good" different.
So let's look at some constraints.
Language tends to travel with migration patterns, which are affected by geography, so linguistic lines are often drawn along mountains or rivers. I've heard people on one side of the Ohio River say they can't understand people on the other side. The English spoken by people in the Appalachians is hardly intelligible to outsiders. Creole is, again, different.
These are all American.
What about race? African American English (AAE) and Chicano English both exist, yet still aren't the "American" speeches that people want when they request that you "speak American".
What does it mean to "speak American"?
It means that the person telling you to speak American is very close-minded with half a grasp on their own one language. What they want seems to be some amalgamation of standard written American English (which I would argue is its own dialect anymore) mixed with pronunciations and grammatical rules that they embody themselves, even if not technically "correct".
So if someone tells you to go back home, or to speak American, feel free to call them a Moosh Koosh (n., Ojibwe, "dumbass") and go about the business of your life.
Welcome to the United States.