Column: U.S., Melting Pot Not For Language

This story was written by Steve Adams, Iowa State Daily
While picking up the forgotten cinnamon essential to a Thanksgivingpumpkin pie at a grocery store in the suburbs of Chicago, I overhearda young woman say, These guys were giving me shit because I couldnttalk to them in their language.The words caught mypolitically-minded ears, hoping that a debate would ensue. As Ifollowed the women from the spice aisle to the cereal aisle, Iattempted to hide my interest in their conversation by reading thebacks of boxes. Mildly distracted, I reveled in the fact that our 20thpresident, James A. Garfield, wrote Latin with one hand and Greek withthe other.But my lesson in presidential trivia brought tome by ALDIs bran flakes was interrupted by the debate that I hadbeen hoping for.After conversing a bit at a level that Icouldnt make out, the young woman said, Well, I have no problem withimmigrants coming here and getting jobs that Americans arent doing,but I dont think they have any right to expect me to learn theirlanguage.Good point, I said under my breath, thinking tomyself that these guys wouldnt expect people at a restaurant in theircountry to learn English just because a few Americans were hired. Atleast I didnt think they would, but Well, we should alljust try to learn to speak both languages, the other woman saidcalmly. Because this country is a melting pot anyway. If we can speakSpanish and they can speak English, well that would be great.Isshe serious?, I wondered. Serious or not, both women went to thecheckout line, and my eavesdropping was done for the day. But my mindwasnt.After returning home, I looked up melting pot, whichI had remembered reading about back in high school. Theever-informative Wikipedia reminded me that de Crevecoeur had writtenthis about America way back in 1782. First asking, What then is theAmerican, this new man? He then answered that he is English, Scotch,Irish, French, Dutch, German, and Swede. Whatever his ethnicity, hehad left behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, andreceived new ones from the new mode of life he embraced, the governmenthe obeyed, and the new rank he held.Though the ethnicitieshave changed over time, this explanation of the melting pot has heldtrue throughout this countrys history. I wondered, however, just howthat woman in the grocery store could invoke these two words insuggesting that her friend try to learn Spanish and her co-workers tryto learn English.Though a melting pot of immigrants and ayoung nation, America is still a nation, the definition of whichentails a shared identity. While todays Americans possess diverseorigins, and thus diverse aspects of their identities, there are a fewcommonalties that they all at least until recently seem to share.The overarching one, my errand to the grocery store reminded me, islanguage.Ever-open to debate, I put this belief of mineforward on Thanksgiving, a seemingly appropriate day to talk about theshared traits of Americans.Sitting at a table with acollection of first-, second- and third- generation Americans whoseparents and grandparents had come to America from Italy and Poland, Iwasnt sure if I should bring up the subject. I took the chance,however, as we dug into the pumpkin pie the cinnamon of which was myminuscule contribution to the meal and put forth the issue.Offeringmy belief that America is indeed a melting pot, and that thesubcultures of its diverse population are what make it such a coolcountry, I worried that I might get thrown out of the house, banishedby my generous hosts.This, however, was not the case.Farfrom a two-sided debate, my opinion received a one-sided outlay ofsupporting evidence. While an aunt said that she completely agreed, andcouldnt believe that a bilingual translator had been hired at herdaughters school to deliver each classes material to Hispanicstudents, an uncle stated that he learned to speak Italian at home, butwould have never expected or supported being atered to at schoolinstead of learning to speak the language of his peers.Thestrongest support was likely from the paterfamilias, an immigranthimself, who said that he, like all other new Americans, had workedlike crazy when he came to the country but knew that he was going tohave to and indeed did learn English if he was going to become acitizen and achieve success.As I sat back and listened to theconversation which I had instigated, biting into a pierogi at onemoment and some tiramisu at another, I found myself thankful to live ina country where people of so many backgrounds especially culinary have come together. I also found myself thankful that while learningFrench and Latin in high school may have not been a great investment, Iwont have to learn Spanish fifty years from now just so that I cancommunicate with my grandchildren.Lets just hope it stays that way.
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