Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is a professor of literature and linguistics at Taylor University Fort Wayne, where he directs the professional writing major. Eight of his 47 published books are about language development and writing skills, including Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in 24 Hours (Macmillan) and How to Write What You Love and Make a Living at It (Random House/Shaw).
One debate is at rest. We no longer try to make the claim that America is the “great melting pot.” We now recognize it’s illogical to think that a person might arrive on our shores and instantly be morphed into a generic human who is 5-feet-10, blue-eyed, brown-haired and white skinned. No, we’re metaphorically beyond that. We’ve segued, more accurately, into referring to America as a large “patchwork quilt.”
This newer image conjures up a nation with Irish-Americans adjacent to African-Americans next to German-Americans next to Chinese-Americans, et. al. Though each block of the quilt displays its unique design of color blend, print pattern, and cloth texture, each nevertheless is equal in size, value, and functional contribution to all the others. And, though different, they are unified because each adheres to a common backing.
This diversity allows me to drive down a street in my hometown and not think it unnatural to see Taco Bell next to Kentucky Fried Chicken next to House of Hunan Diner next to Taj Mahal Indian Cuisine. Likewise, one street has signs for Golding’s Tailor Shop, O’Malley’s Bar, Chen’s Laundry, and Johannsen’s Spa. On my way to work I go down Lafayette Boulevard to Kosciusko Way to Marlanova Street to McTavish Lane.
Although I am far from blind to this amazing diversity, I’m certainly not awed by it. This is because it truly is the “norm” in America. Diversity often equates to ethnic mastery, so that calling someone an Irish cop or a Swiss watchmaker or a French pastry chef in this country is more a label of honor than a degrading cliché.
Inclusive nationalism, I would assert, is unique to the United States. If an Egyptian or Russian or Kenyan or Dane were to spend five years in America and pass the requirements for citizenship, he then could say to folks, “I am an American,” and, indeed, he would be accepted as such. But can the same be said of outsiders who go to Japan, France, Iran, China or India? Are they, even upon obtaining papers of citizenship, truly ever accepted as genuine nationals? I think not. (And in my global travels, I’ve met people who have told me as much.)
Only in America does e pluribus unum refer as much to the cultural threads of the society as it does to the 50 separate states. It is this unum—the unity and solidarity and collectivism—of a gathered people that gives the country its strength of binding and stitching. Anything that attempts to unravel or fray the well-crafted patchwork quilt may cause a tattering that results in “many out of one.”
So it is that I am vehemently opposed to the expanding practice of dual-language labeling of government venues, buildings, and printed materials. Texas, New Mexico, California and Florida are now replete with Spanish-English signage. Airports and expressways in numerous other major metropolitan centers in the Midwest, South, and Northwest are starting to follow suit. It’s a trend that needs to be reversed immediately.
The politically correct argument to justify this new signage is that Cubans, Mexicans, and Central Americans are flooding into this country to do the low-level jobs that Americans do not wish to do. In order to help these poorly educated émigrés (whether here legally or illegally) find work and housing, and to help them interact with local commerce, they need to have business and government signs printed in their native language. It’s the only “fair” thing to do.
There are nearly as many Polish-Americans in Chicago as there are Poles in Warsaw, Poland. But do we find Chicago awash in Polish-English signage? Of course not. Holland, Michigan does not have Dutch-English signage on its schools, post offices, and utility trucks. Endless examples of other ethnically-strong communities abound, none with government signage in a secondary language.
For a fact, dual signage in Spanish and English is not politically correct. It is bigotry and racism at its most despicable inculcation. What it blatantly repeats is this: If these Spanish speaking people become as literate, as mono-voiced, as the Polish-Americans and Dutch Americans [insert the sub-nationality of your choice] have become, they will rise to the same level of success as these other subcultures. Then who will we get to do our menial tasks? Better to keep them language-deficient and, thus, non-upwardly mobile.
Allow me to share a parallel circumstance from recent U.S. history. Fifteen years ago I was the chairman of the school board of a private elementary school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where my wife taught fifth grade and both of my children attended. Our student body consisted of 145 children, with about 25% being African-American.
For a period of three years back then, schools in our area were being pressured to adopt Ebonics, which is tolerance of African-American cultural ghetto phraseology, spelling, pronunciation, and syntax in English usage. This was considered the politically correct way to show respect for a subculture’s “uniqueness.” I rejected it, denounced it, and proclaimed publicly that our school would never tolerate such a prejudiced insult to our African-American students. I stated bluntly that African-American students had the same potential to master standard English as any other subculture in the U.S., and I refused to relegate them to a “lingo” that would severely hamper future advancement.
I was called a retro educator…a white elitist…a bigot. I didn’t care. I felt just the opposite was true. I stuck to my traditional lexicons and grammar texts when other area schools embraced the Ebonics movement. And, lo and behold, what do you think happened? At the end of the 20th century, the SAT pre-college exams were revised so that all students were required to answer the traditional multiple choice questions, but, additionally, were required to write a full-length essay to prove they could handle standard English usage of grammar, syntactical structure, spelling, and vocabulary preciseness.
Today, the African-American students who attended our elementary school 15 years ago are nurses, politicians, teachers, missionaries, and business owners. However, the pro-Ebonics students of the other schools now find themselves doubly-cursed. They are trapped in low level employment, and they lack the linguistic skills by which to express their anger and frustration over this situation.
Let me emphasize that I am not insensitive to the difficulty of acquiring new language skills. In 1971, when I was 22, I served a year in Vietnam while in the United States Army. When I arrived, I spoke no Vietnamese. However, after a year of intentionally practicing the language with the Vietnamese who worked on our base, I was conversant, if not fluent. That took effort on my part, yes; but, it was my feeling that when in Rome (or Vietnam or America), do as . . . .
Today, my next door neighbor of 14 years, Jorge Tobo, is a man originally from Columbia. He speaks English with a recognizable South American accent, but his English is excellent. His three daughters, all born in America, are fluent in their native English and also the Spanish of their household. When Jorge and I are both outside doing yard work in summer, he lets me practice my Spanish with him. It comes somewhat naturally for me, since dozens of words in the English dictionary—bronco, burro, taco, matador, poncho, rodeo, even “the Alamo”—are borrowed, untranslated Spanish anyway. I’m getting continually better. It’s good to know more than one language, I feel.
Jorge Tobo is a naturalized citizen. He works as a supervisor with General Motors. His daughters are college graduates who are school teachers and hospital social workers. There are no porch welcome mats or curbside mailboxes or any other items on Jorge’s property that are co-labeled in Spanish and English.
Why should there be? When Jorge says he’s an American, we all just nod and agree.
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