“Speak American!” The statement mostly shouted at non-English speaking individuals, is rather ironic on multiple levels. We can begin with the fact that the name America is derived from, Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer and navigator. You can see the other levels of irony in the fact that American isn’t a language. It’s an adjective, at best.
I see yet another level of irony as I inspect American history. We are called “America, the melting pot”, but we function more like a refinery. We heat, pressurize, and process the fresh waves of immigrants with their strange smells and odd customs to mold an ideal American. We keep editing out the strange flavors until it fits the taste we “like.” We boiled out generations of culture and language because keeping up wasn’t enough, we had to be the Jones’. We call this process, Americanizing.
One aspect of American culture is a culture of denying and hiding the traditions of our motherlands. We conflate our homelands with “being backward” and have stunted our progress because of it. This is the case of many immigrants who tell their first and second-generation stories of being "fresh off the boat."
Speaking of, the author of the book and comedy show, 'Fresh Off the Boat' by Eddie Huang speaks directly to this experience in his interview with CBS as a child of Chinese immigrants.
We are the Welsh who don’t speak Welsh, the Spaniards who don’t speak Spanish, the German who don’t speak German, the Chinese who don’t speak Chinese, the Italians who don’t speak Italian, the Arabs who don’t speak Arabic, the Polish who don’t speak Polish for no other reason than “we stopped speaking it at home.”
Amid our cultural refinery, we travel back to our motherlands and growl at their lack of refinement. We wonder how such a place could exist without English signage plaster over every doorway. How dare they not speak English! Honestly, how dare you for being so complacent in your curiosity.
We are just as human as our neighbors across the street or our neighbor across the sea. So who are we that we believe everyone should learn our language, but we shouldn’t learn any of theirs? The hangup for what we've created in American culture is that language learning is hard.
In Gabriel Wyner's Ted Talk, he explains that language learning is truly about memory formation, and if we all speak a native language, we're capable of speaking a second, third, and fourth. His book, Fluent Forever, discusses the process of how we can better learn and think in. languages. The questions is do we want to? When we realize there are precious treasures in these languages and cultures, the sooner we’ll enrich our society with the values of its people.
The reason we have so much trouble in learning languages in this country is because we haven't put the proper value to the cultures and traditions they hail from--why bother with a language if you don't value its roots?
Below is a post from my personal Facebook page on our group chats:
“Will I be liked?”
“Are Americans friendly?”
“Do you think I will be at a disadvantage because of my accent?”
“People laugh at me because I can’t pronounce my ‘L’s.’”
“I stopped telling people I’m from Lebanon because they always ask if I like living with terrorists.”
“Is it easy to make friends in university? I don’t want people to be annoyed with me because I always ask for them to repeat something.”
“What do I do if I don’t understand the slang?”
“People get frustrated with me because of my thick accent.”
These were the questions and comments made by our members in our first Polly Languages: English Chat.
Honestly, it was sobering to think that America, a country of immigrants, slaves, and misfits, once called a melting pot can be such a harsh place for immigrants and international students to thrive.
What first started as an English Chat group to help with pronunciation and slang, very soon became a support group for our members from Japan, Israel, Colombia, China, Mexico, Lebanon, Serbia, and a handful of other countries.
Some had been in the States for a few months, while others had been here for decades. Despite the plethora of backgrounds, languages, and education levels, there was this underlying desire to be accepted and make friends in a foreign land.
Quite frankly, that was NOT my initial goal when creating Polly Languages. It was mostly my selfish desires to practice Arabic and Spanish with native/fluent speakers. I realize, now, the broader implications of creating a language learning platform that forces you to sit down and chat with your Polish neighbors, your Vietnamese neighbors, your Nigerian neighbors, whatever country they are from and find out for yourself what you have in common, what is different, and to be able to see the value in both.
That’s pretty “American” to me, and we’re gonna go with it.