Sunday, September 20, 2009

Language: The Fat in the Melting Pot

As a college professor, I present papers at conferences at least twice a year. A couple of years ago I actually got to write something fun: an essay on the need for immigrants to learn English, a topic near and dear to the heart of Spanish professors, as you can imagine, although we certainly don't all agree. At any rate, here's what I think:

Years ago, when carbohydrates were in and fat was out, there was a butter substitute that was virtually fat free. I remember seeing my mother drop a glob into a pan of boiling liquid. Nothing happened. It didn’t melt. She put some directly onto a hot griddle. Same results—nothing. I remember thinking that even plastic melts. What was this thing that was supposed to be food? Obviously, butter without fat was not going to melt.

The U.S. has been called a melting pot. We are very much a heterogeneous group of people. But think about what a melting pot is. If you mix butter, chocolate chips, peanut butter, and vanilla together in a hot pot, you see them swirled together. You don’t have chunks of chocolate in one corner of a hot pot and a lump of butter in another. Even before they’re mixed, they swirl together so that, while you recognize the individual elements, you really couldn’t separate them.

In theory, that’s what the U.S. is like. But if we are unable to communicate with each other, how can we melt together, so to speak? Illegal immigration is a huge issue in this country. But even legal immigration has its problems. I’ve known many Hispanic people who have spent years here and are unable to speak English. So we accommodate them by printing Spanish along with English on signs, TV ads, etc., and having a Spanish option when we call the cable company, phone company, etc. On one side people argue that we need to make these services accessible to the millions of Hispanics who are here, whether legally or not, and on the other side are people who grumble that if they’re going to come here, they need to learn the language. But in my opinion, neither of these groups has the good of immigrants or the good of the country in mind. If you have a toddler who isn’t where he should be in learning to talk, and that child points to something he wants and grunts, are you doing him a favor if you give it to him? If you really want what’s best for the child, won’t you insist that he say the word in order to get the object? And if you give it to him when he merely points and grunts, will he learn to say the word? Why should he bother?

Many Hispanics will never bother to learn English if they are able to survive without it. And we need them to learn it as much for our sakes as theirs. The U.S. is unique in the world—or at least in the West. Europeans seem to have no concept of the word “patriotism.” My European friends don’t know what it means to love one’s country. Many people call the U.S. a polarized country, especially during elections, and while that is probably true, September 11 showed us that we are also a united country. Years ago I went to the laser light show at Stone Mountain, Georgia, and I remember one part where lights made Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee move on their horses across the face of the mountain to the tune of “Dixie,” I believe. People applauded and cheered. Later in the show, the lights showed the two halves of the country, the North and the South, coming back together to form a whole, to the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A.,” and the applause and cheers were deafening. While we might be proud of our particular state or particular area of the country, we are by far much more proud of our country, of being Americans, of being part of the whole. But a country whose citizens cannot communicate with each other cannot remain united.

Spain is a good example of a regionalistic country. People don’t describe themselves as Spanish. Instead, they are Catalonian, Basque, Andalusian, etc. Every summer I spend a month in Barcelona, which is in the province of Catalonia. During the 38 years of his dictatorship, Franco suppressed the Catalan language. It could not be used in the schools or in any public or official way. When Franco died, the Catalan people pushed the language forward. Now Catalan is the only language in the schools, and all the signs and even the restaurant menus are in Catalan—and there is no Spanish to accompany the Catalan. There are approximately 6,000,000 speakers of Catalan worldwide, and 4,000,000 of those are in Spain; virtually all of those speak at least one other language fluently, quite often as fluently as Catalan. There are approximately 39,500,000 speakers of Spanish in Spain—ten times as many as there are speakers of Catalan. But in Barcelona, a very metropolitan city, with immigrants from Spain and all over the world, you have to be able to speak Catalan to get a government job, and there are a lot of other jobs where fluency in Catalan is a requirement. Their language is a point of pride with the Catalonians—and a point of separation from the rest of the country. Many want independence from Spain. These people recognize what most Americans do not: language unites you as a people and sets you apart from those who don’t speak it.

I live in Georgia, and Savannah has the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the country. St. Patrick’s Day—an Irish holiday, right? Why do we celebrate an Irish holiday? I did some research and found that Boston and New York have had St. Patrick’s Day celebrations since the 1700s, and while there’s no indication of why, logic dictates that they were begun by Irish immigrants, who were outnumbered only by English immigrants in colonial times. The Irish potato famine brought us even more immigrants. And they shared their traditions with their new compatriots. Now there are St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all over the country, and we all know about shamrocks and leprechauns and the gold at the end of the rainbow. That has become part of our American culture. Remember the “you got chocolate in my peanut butter/you got peanut butter on my chocolate” Reese’s Cup commercials? They blended together for a unique taste. That’s what happens with a melting pot: everything is blended together. Immigrants don’t abandon their culture; rather, they share it, and we all benefit.

When we enable people to immigrate here without learning the language, we deprive ourselves as well as them. They shouldn’t abandon their culture; they should bring it with them and share it, thereby enriching their new country. And how can they do it if they can’t speak the language spoken by the inhabitants of that country? If they’re going to come here, they need to become a part of the country, to melt in with the rest, so to speak, to add to our culture.

These days, wanting to have voting ballots and food labels and everything else in Spanish is considered open-minded and inviting. But I think that the reverse is true. The Oakland school board recently had to abandon plans to teach so-called Ebonics, a dialect of English spoken by black people, as a second language. People were outraged, because while the program would ostensibly recognize Ebonics as a dialect on par with standard English, in effect it would keep black students from learning the dialect that, like it or not, is the dialect of educated, financially successful America. Maya Angelou stated that recognizing the dialect as a separate language would discourage young black Americans from learning standard English. In short, teaching Ebonics would hold black students back, keep them from getting the best jobs. And we’re just talking about a dialect. If students who were born here need to learn standard English in order to succeed in our country, what does that say about those who speak no dialect of English?

As a Spanish teacher, I’m the first to say that we need foreign languages from elementary school on. We have a few bilingual schools in this country where students study half the day in English and half the day in another language, and most parents in those areas want their children in those schools. Studies have shown that children who learn a second language develop their brain in ways that benefit them beyond the ability to speak a second language. There is absolutely no doubt that we need to become less ethnocentric and learn other languages. But that does not change the fact that English is the native language of virtually all our citizens and that anyone who lives here needs to be able to speak English.

Remember the glob of butter substitute that wouldn’t melt? It needed fat. If we want to continue to be a united and not regionalistic country, if we want to enjoy the richness of the cultures that immigrants bring us, if we want all our citizens to have the opportunity to prosper, then we need fat in our melting pot. We all need to speak the same language.


  1. hi DR.Guffey this is christian driver and i believe that all the citizens in the U.S should learn english because it will somewhat bring down the language barrier that keeps us divided as a people

  2. hi Dr.Guffey this is christian driver and i believe that all the citizens in the U.S should Know english because it will somewhat bring down the language barrier that keeeps us divided

  3. Not enough substance, Christian--you could have made that comment without ever having read the article.

  4. By the way, everyone, be sure to choose the drop-down comment box below and put your name in it so I'll know who's posting.

  5. I agree that that it is best for the country as a whole that all people living here learn to speak English,but I don't think it's bad that we accommodate them by offering Spanish on road signs. This particular issue is a lot more complex then most people realise. When someone comes here from another country, especially if they do so illegally, their first priority will not be learning the native language but finding a way to survive. Also, from what I understand, learning a new language and becoming fluent in it is a very hard thing to do past a certain age. I think there is only so much you can expect from an immigrant who has no previous education in English. I know that there ESL classes available, but considering the fact that many immigrants do not take advantage of that, perhaps the problem is not with the immigrants but our ability to effectively show and provide them with the resources they need to learn at least basic English.

  6. I agree with the author of this article. Language is the most important part of unity in a community. In my sociology class, language is the keystone to any society. If a large portion of this society cannot communicate, the society itself will not be able to withsatnd the test of time.
    Alot of issues that happen in life end up being simple miscommuntications, and it happens every day. If simple miscommunications between people of similar languages can cause disorder and confrontation, just think of the issues that will insue from large portions of our population not being able to viably communicate.
    The only thing i don't like about the article is the idea of the melting pot. While I feel like it is a good example for the peice, I would argue that America is actually more like a salad bowl. Rather than us coming together in a big sticky mess like that of a melting pot, i believe Americans can keep their own identity, i.e. the carrots are still carrots, the lettice is still lettice, etc., and our language acts as a salad dressing, tying the whole dish, the salad, together. Without the dressing, the salads seperate parts dont tie together very well, because they are very different flavors. The salad only needs one thing, the dressing, to bring all these parts in to one, like language should do for Americans, whether they be native speakers or not.

  7. Dr. Guffey,
    I feel the exact same way about this. I do think that if people choose to live in this country and have the freedom that we do, they should at least know how to speak the English language. These days people have everything handed to them, such as having the Spanish language written on things, it doesn't give them the incentive to learn our language. I work in the restaurant business as a waitress in a predominately Hispanic city. It is hard for me to serve people and understand them if they can not speak English. This doesn't just pin point Hispanics only but anyone who lives in this country and can not speak English. I like the idea of the melting pot. This country is diversified but we all need to come together and make things easier for everyone. Foreigners should conform to our ways of living to also make things easier. I think your article makes a lot of sense and I think that people should understand how this country operates and should not take advantage of the system but try to learn new things.

  8. @Celia--I can sympathize with the road signs to a degree, because you're driving long before you're even close to fluent. But I disagree with the last part of your post: "I know that there ESL classes available, but considering the fact that many immigrants do not take advantage of that, perhaps the problem is not with the immigrants but our ability to effectively show and provide them with the resources they need to learn at least basic English." If the immigrants are not taking advantage of ESL classes, the problem most definitely is with them. Also, you mention earlier that if they come here illegally, their first priority might not be learning the language. Now, I can't say I wouldn't try to go to another country illegally if it meant being able to provide for my family (I think the solution to illegal immigration is getting serious about fining those who hire illegals), but if I were going to do that, I certainly wouldn't expect to be accommodated. When we Americans go abroad, we get lambasted for expecting everyone to accommodate us when we're in THEIR country. Yet so many people, mostly people who are critical of their fellow Americans for acting that way abroad, expect us to do for Mexicans what they think other countries shouldn't do for us. Think of it in those terms: if you went to live in Japan, would you expect there to be an English option when you called about car insurance? Would you get angry if there weren't? When you move to another country, you need to be the one to do what's required to fit in, not expect things to be done to accommodate you.

    @Drea--I appreciate your coming here! I get your salad analogy, and I get why you don't like the melting pot so much, but the problem I have with carrots remaining carrots but communiating with lettuce is that if they remain just carrots, they can't give their flavor to the other ingredients. How about a melting pot that's not stirred? Kind of like the picture above, where things are melting together, but you can still see the butter, the chocolate, etc.?

    Please express your feelings, even if they are different from mine. Your grade is based on an intelligent post, not agreement with the professor!

  9. Dr. Guffey

    To a certain extent I agree with the blog. America in comparison to a melting pot, can in a matter of a fact be true. We are all a mix of different races(ingredients) living together in this tiny space, earth(the pot), forced to adapt in an uncomfortable environment(temperature of pot). I also agree that if illegal or legal immigrants choose to come to the U.S. they should indeed learn enough English, that if he or she wants to communicate, that would not be a problem. Whether or not we try to help Hispanics by putting their language on signs or instructions, we still are not reaching out to other immigrants who are not familiar with that particular language. The toddler incident is where I come to disagree. I have 3 nieces who are all very intelligent. Their ages are 10,9,and 2. As toddlers, the two oldest went through a stage that every baby goes through, and that's the pointing, possessive stage. We would tell them what the object was, but one thing with toddlers, when they are ready to walk and talk, they will do it, without so much force. The issue with Ebonics, considered as a different language still puzzles my mind. If a hispanic can be successful and not know any English whatsoever, then how does a knock-off language such as Ebonics stunt the success of other Americans? My perspective of why Hispanics do not want to learn our language, is probably because they do not want to weaken their culture by becoming more adaptive to ours. An example is that I have a Hispanic friend, who knows English very well, but when he receives a phone call from his family, he has to speak in their language only. It is mandatory in his home to speak their language fluently.

  10. what i meant to say is that yes we all should should know a common language but on the other hand for me it's a challenge for me because it forces me to learn different languages for example in my neiborhood there were some children for south africa that only knew arikaans so to play with them i picked up some key phrases so we could both understand each other

  11. Dr. Guffey,
    My feelings on the matter is that if you are going to come to the United States then you need to learn how to speak our language. I agree that it is good for immigrants to bring their culture with them like the example of St. Patrick's Day but i think it should be a MUST for them to learn to speak English. We as Americans should not have to accomodate them by learning to speak Spanish. If we continue to make it easy for the immigrants by having everything wirtten in spanish then they will not have the motivation to go learn english. Why go and spend time and effort learning english when you can get by with just knowing your language? America needs to be a melting put and all come together and be united as one ALL speaking the same language.

  12. Let me begin by saying that this is well written, and thank you for that. So, i like the metaphor of the pot in the melting pot, and the fact that real fat is needed and the substitute won't work. I agree, as I'm sure most did, that an understanding of our language is needed so that immigrants, illegal or not, to successfully function in our society. The patriotism throws the whole "learning the native language" system for a loop in that we want to discourage the lack of needing to learn our language, and yet multi-million/billion dollar corporations see the need for the second language as a business oppurtunity. As they accommodate those who have not been motivated to learn our language, they perpetuate the lack of need to learn the language. It seems as if we should direct our attention to those who accommodate, as you said, but thats when we conflict with what has been made the most patriotic thing of all, capitalism and the free market. To tamper with and attack this idea is to mess with something that americans hold close and dear. This is where it becomes a touchy subjct. Laissez-faire and the regulation of employers creates conflicting ideologies, but what other way is there to deal with this serious issue. We must address the head of this beast that is seemingly parasitic in nature. i believe that is an essay within itself and for another time. So let me close by saying that of course i agree that they should learn our language, not neccessarily fluently, but well enough that they can function as an independent individual within our society. Biblical reference, King Babel. The lack of a cohesive substance that is language causes mass chaos, just saying. Also, we should focus on those that accommodate, not in the sence of road signs and such, but in the way that we shouldn't have the english instructions smaller than the spanish instructions on the dertergants. Let's keep in mind that this is the inevitable process of the evolution of our language, and we can't stop it but we can give it a nudge in the direction of our choosing.......

  13. first line i meant to say "stuff in the melting pot."

  14. Dr. Guffey,
    As I read your blog I couldn't help but react with a "I never thought about it this way." Patriotism has always been important in my family. It will always continue to be as well. I also know how important it is for ALL people to know and speak english. I am a welcoming American to immigrants, but I do believe that they shoud learn the language that Americans speak. Everyone has their opinion and as much as I wish for this country to be united, I do not know if and when that will ever take place. I love going to Stone Mountain and yelling for our country and for those who fight for our freedom. I also enjoy other non-American-became-American holiday traditions like St. Patrick's Day. I just believe in simplicity, and if immigrants were to all learn our common language, life would get a little bit closer to being more simple. Maybe a little closer to unity.

  15. Dr. guffey,
    I definitely agree on your opinion on this subject. If an immigrant comes to the USA and if they are relying on our country as a means of survival for their family, they should have to cooperate and learn our language. Why should everything be so simple for them? Also, it is very annoying and irritating with Spanish options being everywhere I look. For instance, when you call a 1-800 help line for a company and they pick up and go "For English press 1," and then very suddenly and much more loud say "SIHFHSIUE NFAJNDSKNEDAKWNEDRUN KNSK JNJNAKN DOS" (I do not know how to decipher or translate Spanish.) Also, when you are assembling something, be it a computer printer, toolbox, furniture, etc. and you open up the manual and half of it is in Spanish. You have to flip through it page by page until you find where the English section begins. Your analogy on going to Japan and expecting an English option at a car insurancy company was dead-on. So why is it that everyone comes here and gets to be accomodated? Just as if I went to Japan and wouldnt expect to be greeted with an English "Hello" at a car insurance company, I also wouldn't expect to go to Russia and buy a computer printer and expect the instruction manual to have an atttached English version. Everyone is like "oh, we're poor lets go to USA and make way more money than we are now and save our family and live in poverty that is still considered lavish versus poverty in our hometown... blah, blah, blah." Then they are so put out when they might have to survive in English.
    All in all, good article. Got me thinking.

    Chris Bowman

  16. P.S. But they did do a good job on building us a new garage at our house last month, so I have to give them their props.

  17. Dr.Guffey,

    I believe if you come to the US that you should have to learn how to speak standard English, but we as American should also learn spanish even if we do not speak it as our native language. For example some spanish people come in my job and they do not speak english at all and it gets very hard to help them in finding what he or she needs or is trying to ask. Although i took spaanish in high school its still hard to help them out. So why is it that in America we make it easy for them by putting up signs or having an second option for them to choose on the phone? Who they do it for us if we lived in their country? If we just keep making it easier for them we will never be able to come together like aa melting.America needs to be a melting put and all come together and be united as one everyone speaking the same language.

  18. The chocolate and peanut butter in Reeses is not mixed; I eat the peanut butter seperately, incase you were wondering.

    im not very good a deep thinking so this might sound kind of shallow..

    I think learning a second language should be a choice. if i move to another country to live they'll make me learn their language, i think the spanish need to just deal and learn Enlgish. all the good jobs you have to know spanish. thats not our language, i shouldnt have to learn it to get a better job. i think the only people who should really have to learn other languages is the hospitals since it can be crucial to a persons well being. other than that, i think its ridiculous i cant get a job with henry county because i don't know spanish (just got turned down from a job for the govt because i dont know spanish.. a tad bit bitter.)
    if they come to our country they need to learn our language, and if they're illegal they need to turn around and go back where they came from. i dont know why people are so concerned about what the illegal immigrants want, they're ILLEGAL who cares? (besides my parents yard boy, he does a pretty good job to be illegal.) if i go over to mexico and demand rights to vote and government healthcare and rights and all that other jazz they'll look at me like i'm mentally retarded, yet they can come over here and parade around atlanta with pickett signs demanding all kinds of stuff.

    as far as having the spanish options on automatic answering services for AT&T and such, i dont mind that as much.. they won't know english right off the bat when they arrive so some spanish is a huge help to them but sooner or later they need to learn english.
    although i think they need to get rid of autmated answering lines all together because they're impossible to accomplish anything on.
    on the automated lines spanish is a secondary option, where as at Washington Mutual (not in the essay above but figured id throw it in) the main language on all of their deposit slips and such is spanish. english is in parenthesies below it. i think thats a crock of crap, i withdrew everything from there and closed my account because if i bank with someone based in my country, i expect them to speak my language. i shouldnt have to have english subtitles in parenthesies below the language of another country.
    washingtom mutual sucks anways, just saying.

  19. @Melissa--Now tell me how you REALLY feel!!

    @Hannah--I once had to explain online to some Germans what patriotism is. Most Europeans I've met really don't have a clue what it means to love your country.

    Everyone--should Melissa have been unable to get a U.S. job because she couldn't speak Spanish? Assuming that it wasn't between her and someone else who could speak Spanish (speaking a foreign language is always an advantage), should she have been turned down flat just because she couldn't speak Spanish?

  20. what do you mean tell you how i really feel? i think i did a good job putting it out there. i dont have a way with words, i'm not very convincing with arguments.

    p.s.- i just finished finding all my sources for my paper, thought you would be proud.

  21. I fully agree that we should i speak the same language. We cont. to cater to people that speak another language when they come here and they never become part of America. With that said i do not think they should forget their on culture, i think we should encourage everyone to speak more than one language, we should teach children another language all through out public school, it would be so benificial. But i do not think we should cater to those who move to America and do not speak english, they come to this country and they need to learn the language. If americans moved to another country they would be expected to learn the language, and they would not be catered to.

  22. I definitely think Melissa shouldn't have gotten the job regardless of if she can speak Spanish. I'm sure that was just their excuse of rejecting her because she was unqualified

  23. christian's very first comment was the best one on here haha

  24. shut up chris. she didnt really want your opinion.
    how can you be unqualified to answer a phone? i'm pretty capable of it.

  25. wellllllll, melissa, probably because you said twice that you "don't have a way with words" and that is kind of necessary when you're a phone operator. But I'm just saying...

    ...and who eats a Resse's cups like the way you described? What a weirdo =)

  26. anyways, i can talk enough to answer a phone.

    and alota people eat them the way i do
    you bite the bottome off,
    pull the peanut butter off,
    eat it,
    then eat the rest of the cholocate.

    theres steps incase you wanted to try it sometime.
    always here to help.

  27. wut u tryna say bout ebonics they aint nuttin wrong wit it. i heard dey was gettin a ebonics class here @ gordin y u got a problem wit it

  28. marqueeshia comminsNovember 3, 2009 at 1:43 PM

    my girl shakira b rite wen she d@t bout ebonics. i don see why k. guff always sayin sumthin bout ebonics n a negative way. dey shud just te@ch dem mexicans ebonics instead of no english bull cuz english dont be practical in da streets

  29. @marqueeshia--Now THAT'S a great idea! "Ebonics for Mexicans"--let's see if we can get someone to offer that here next year!