11/19/2012 04:11 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

Our Language, Our Neighbors

The other day, there was a letter to the editor in our local newspaper. The reader had two complaints to share. One was that ballots were printed in foreign languages. The second, running along a similar theme, was that so many products come material printed in multiple languages. Sensitive as I am to issues of language, I certainly understood the reader's concerns, but also inwardly lamented our collective inability to look at issues in a more fully rounded manner.

The issue of printing ballots in languages other than English is based both on federal legislation and court rulings. Nonetheless, since I am a historian by training, I think it might be worthwhile to note that the history of the United States is one of language diversity. Quite simply: there is no point in the history of the United States in which there was not a multiplicity of languages being spoken. At the time of Independence there were important populations of German, Dutch, French, and Spanish speakers in the 13 colonies. Even that does not take into account the hundreds of native languages spoken by thousands of members of indigenous tribes such as the Mohawk, Iroquois, Cherokee, and many others, who had been here for many generations. Following this same line of reasoning, one needs to deal with French and Spanish speakers who through no fault or action of their own, one day awoke to be part of the United States. Folks living in the Trans-Mississippian West by and large did not speak English when those lands were purchased and annexed by the United States. All of these people and their descendants are, by right and law, American citizens, and have every expectation that they will be given the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship, including voting rights in a language other than English, if need be. Rather than lamenting that we need to have ballots in many different languages, we should celebrate our diversity.

The issue of packaging of products, not to mention advertising of products, raises another set of questions. Many years ago, when I was living in Mexico, teaching English to businessmen from around the world, I asked a Japanese executive whom I had come to know which language he felt was the most important from the perspective of business. He replied quite quickly: "The language of my customer." Indeed, the reason packaging is in multiple languages is because there are multiple customers. For most businesses, it is easier to have one package for their product which will serve them in Mexico, Indiana, and Quebec. The benefit of the North American Free Trade Agreement is that companies can begin to market their products in a much larger market than just the United States. By packaging their product using the three dominant languages, they can expand their market reach by millions of potential customers.

Most colleges and universities, SUNY Potsdam included, hope to prepare our students to succeed in an increasingly diverse world, both here in the United States and abroad. As I noted in my earlier blog on language, the acquisition of a second (or third) language has become an important skill if a graduate wants to succeed in what Thomas Friedman has characterized as the "flat" world.

Here at SUNY Potsdam we are very proud of this wonderfully diverse world which has brought us so many advantages. We especially hope that our students will become the next mega-millionaires by selling some product or service to thousands of people from different cultures, who learned about it because it was effectively marketed in their own languages. For those graduates who will go on to teach, we hope they can reach out to students with a different native language, so they can speak to the next generation. For our future artists and scholars, connection across disciplines and borders is especially important. We try to give all of our students an understanding of the complexity of the modern world, from the many cultures represented, to the new technologies, and cutting edge science. There is no better chance for our students, graduates and neighbors of all language background to show that they are engaged citizens than for them to exercise the hard-fought right to vote.

The United States has historically welcomed people from all lands. Economic and social pressures, not laws, dictate that residents and citizens will eventually use English. In fact, this is one of the great strengths of our country, one which we hold as the motto of our country: E pluribus unum - From many, one. The most important language is the one spoken by my customer, or by my neighbor, since most of us still try to live by the simple rule that we aspire to treat others in the way we ourselves would wish to be treated.