SPRINGVILLE — I cried during the Super Bowl, and not because the Broncos got slaughtered. Coca-Cola put out a beautiful commercial, in which Americans from many different nationalities and walks of life appeared in a montage to the soundtrack of “America the Beautiful” sang in many different languages, many of which I didn’t recognize. It was beautifully filmed, depicted a wide range of ages and races doing a multitude of “American” things and, by all accounts, living the “American dream.”
So why are so many so angry?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60.6 people ages 5 and older, or about one in five, spoke a language other than English at home, at the time of the last census in 2010.
Among the non-English speakers, two-thirds speak Spanish, with about 37.6 million Americans speaking Spanish at home in 2010, up from about 11 million in 1980.
Chinese was the next most widely-spoken language, with nearly 2.9 million speakers in 2010.
“This study provides evidence of the growing role of languages other than English in the national fabric,” said Camille Ryan, a statistician in the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch.
“Yet, at the same time that more people are speaking languages other than English at home, the percentage of people speaking English proficiently has remained steady.”
Among those who speak another language, 78 percent said they speak English “well” or “very well,” while 22 percent said they speak English “not well” or “not at all,” the 2010 data showed.
Social media erupted after the commercial aired, with responses that predictably ran the gamut from excited to see such diversity represented to outrage that an “American” song would be sung in languages other than English. This may be a good time to point out that the United States has no official national language.
We are a nation of others, in this country. Most of us have ancestors who came from somewhere else. At the time of their arrival, many of those ancestors didn’t speak English, either. So isn’t it a bit rich to criticize Coca-Cola for running an ad that depicts all of America, not just the majority?
“I’m never drinking coke again,” one Facebook poster wrote.
“This is an insult to America,” tweeted another.
“The national anthem should be sung in English by real Americans,” someone else complained.
If you don’t know that “America the Beautiful” is not our national anthem, maybe you’re not terribly qualified to talk about what constitutes a “real American.”
My mom works in a clinic that is frequented by many refugees. Right now, a large portion of her patients are Burmese or Somalian. Although she uses an interpreter for the patients who have not yet learned English, she’s learning a few words in their native languages, from continued interaction with them.
“They’re some of my favorite patients,” she said. “If I don’t know how to say something, we just smile.”
Language barriers aside, smiles are universal.
Many immigrants endured terrible hardships to get to this country. Many still are. Does the language they speak at home make them less worthy of living here? Not in my book.
A poem by Emma Lazarus is engraved on a tablet held by the Statue of Liberty. It reads,
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,/With conquering limbs astride from land to land;/Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand/A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame /Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name/Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command/The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame./ “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she/With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
America is made up of the tired, the poor, the huddle masses. The homeless and “tempest-tost” often don’t arrive here speaking English or, if they do, they may have another language or two in their back pockets. To me, that points to what makes this country such an interesting place: We are made of diversity in race, in culture and in language.
Thanks for recognizing that, Coca-Cola. Maybe critics of that message need to think about where most Americans came from, and what it is they’re criticizing.