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America the Bilingually Beautiful

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Mere seconds after Coca-Cola's 60-second Super Bowl ad faded out with "America is Beautiful," morphing to the Twitter hashtag #AmericaisBeautiful, the social media ignited.

"Honestly Coke, if you're going for patriotism don't have a bunch of foreigners singing my song," wrote one critic.

and...

"If you're gonna sing a song about America, DO IT IN ENGLISH," wrote another.

What was the ad? "America the Beautiful" was sung by a teenage girl in English, then different girls continuing in Spanish, Tagalog, Hebrew, Hindi, Keresan (a Native American language) and Senegalese-French before returning to English for the finish.

As of this writing, the ad has 10.8 million views on YouTube, added to the millions who saw the ad during the game. Of those millions of viewers who watched the ad on YouTube, the "likes" outnumber "dislikes" by 4 to 1. Similar lopsided support of the ad appeared on Twitter, with far more favorable comments like:

"The best thing about America is its diversity."

and

"Love these young and proud multilingual Americans."

Journalists piled on in editorials and blogs, mostly defending the diversity that Coke portrayed, including news humorist Stephen Colbert.

How Small Is Our Language Valley?

Even though the critics of the ad were shouted down, I'd like to defend them when they say this is America and we should all speak English. I agree. And so, apparently, does Coke. Go to the Coke Facebook page and you can watch behind-the-scene videos and see that all the girls are Americans and speak English fluently.

I don't imagine the critics of the ad would have any problem with immigrants, or Native Americans, speaking their heritage languages in their own homes, or in their churches. Those are constitutionally protected rights.

The problem is going public. The real question is: Do foreign languages have any role in public? And what could be more public than a Super Bowl ad?

Before answering, I think it's important to acknowledge a basic fact. Hearing a foreign language that they don't understand makes humans uncomfortable, even when sung sweetly by a teenage girl. This is a normal, neurological reaction.

In Jared Diamond's latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, he explains that languages were spoken by relatively small groups of people who lived in circumscribed areas, such as valleys in New Guinea. Hearing another language was one of the key warning signs that a stranger was near. The people in these traditional societies would run away, or else try to kill the person. This was considered rational behavior for most of human history.

Only very gradually, over the millennia, did humans learn how to move beyond the flight-or-fight response when hearing a foreign tongue. This meant lowering defenses enough to travel to trading spots and attempting to communicate with people who spoke another language.

Even today when we travel outside the borders of our language valley, it's uncomfortable to be left out of the conversation: to be made to feel like a child, to be deprived of adult comprehension.

And when this happens inside our language valley, it's not just uncomfortable, it strikes us as wrong.

Many of us have experienced being closed in an elevator with strangers speaking happily in a foreign language. It's hard to quiet our ancestral brain: 'What are they joking about? Are they talking about me? I need to escape on the next floor!' And then you realize in irritation, 'Hey wait, this is America. Why aren't they speaking English?!?'

Acknowledging this discomfort, understanding that it's basic human nature, is the first step in choosing how to deal with the feelings. We don't have to respond the way our amygdala directs us.

Language Lib?

The discomfiture in hearing a foreign language spoken in public is a familiar kind of awkwardness. It feels a lot like the uneasiness millions have felt when confronted with the rights movements we've lived through since the 1950s.

The Civil Rights movement made many whites uncomfortable. The Women's Rights movement made most men uncomfortable. And more recently, the Gay Rights movement made some straight people uncomfortable. But as these movements played out, millions of people moved through discomfort to neutrality to acceptance. Along the way, millions more blacks, women and gays benefited as individuals, and we all advanced as a nation, as more Americans became enfranchised culturally, politically and economically.

Yet today, America is language-phobic. We see only the benefits of the melting pot -- that we all speak English -- and are blind to what we've lost and continue to lose, which are our heritage languages and the cultures they embody. Spoken by the vast majority of immigrants and a diminishing number of Native Americans, heritage languages are, as language scholar Lucy Tse writes, seen as liabilities, when they should be viewed as resources.

When it comes to language, we chase phantom problems, such as the false perception that immigrants today aren't learning English as well, or as quickly, as previous waves of immigrants. Language researchers like James Crawford and language scholars like Joseph Salmons have convincingly put forth evidence that suggests the opposite is true.

In our schools, we operate out of fear that English isn't being learned well enough and under the mistaken belief that learning more than one language will interfere with English. As a consequence, popular bilingual programs have been swatted out of public schools.

What should concern us as a nation is not any threat to English, which is more dominant than ever in our history, but the continued loss of heritage languages. There is a certain heartbreak in grandparents not being able to talk with their grandchildren.

Ironically, after our schools do their best to expunge heritage languages, they introduce foreign-language classes in high school and college, mainly as electives. Yet success rates of learning languages in US classrooms are poor, as so many frustrated monolingual Americans can testify.

Score: EU 2, US 0

While the US has no national goals with regard to bilingualism, the European Union has an official goal of native language plus two other languages. And the roughly 450 million citizens of the EU are making impressive progress toward that goal, especially their young people.

Americans are surprised to learn how very alone we are as a nation -- not only one of the least bilingual countries among developed nations, but among all nations. Most Indians, most Africans, most Russians and most Chinese speak more than one language. As Jared Diamond explains, multilingualism is the natural state of humans and probably always has been.

Scholar François Grosjean in Bilingual: Life and Reality, reminds us that many of our American Founding Fathers were multilingual, as was Jesus Christ (Aramaic, Hebrew and possibly Greek and Latin). It's we modern Americans who are the historic oddities.

Some parents are taking matters in their own hands and are actively raising their children bilingually. They are doing so in their homes, at private weekend schools and through their churches. In recent years, new books and websites have proliferated on how to raise bilingual children.

Is America ready for a change? Will Language Rights come to earn its capital letters and be the next rights revolution described in Wikipedia?

Judging from the positive comments after the Super Bowl ad, it's possible. Yet a friend cautioned me not to view Twitter and Facebook as representative of American sentiment, since most users of social media are young. But wasn't it the young who also led the civil rights and women's rights and gay rights movements? And aren't our young, after all, our future?

There are powerful, almost gravitational, forces keeping us a nation of monoglots. If Language Rights follows the paths of the other rights movements, it will take time, it will be painful and we'll need humor -- like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Will & Grace -- to get us through.

But in the end, not too many years from now, I can hear a stronger America, an America where everyone speaks English fluently -- and with growing confidence, other languages, too.