Ever since I arrived in the US nearly thirty years ago, I have heard grumblings about immigrants not adhering to American ways. Exotic looks, clothes, foods, languages and religious practices raise many a native eyebrow. Of all these, the sound of a foreign language seems to be the biggest irritant. US immigration laws require all aspiring citizens to have a basic command of the English language. That is understandable and it is for the benefit and convenience of the new comer as well as the host nation.
In the last three decades, despite a proliferation of new immigrants from virtually every corner of the earth and a veritable Tower of Babel of languages within US shores, I see no threat to English being displaced as the official American language any time soon. Some older immigrants ("legal" and "illegal") or those who are employed in ethnically insular occupations never quite learn English. But their children who grow up here, invariably become fluent English speakers. Yet the specter of Americans losing their culture and language due to the influx of foreigners is raised repeatedly by paranoid nationalist fear mongers. The agenda of the right wing Tea Party makes no bones about the America of its dreams.
Not much in the Tea Party manifesto is new. The changes in current day American society are deemed undesirable by many Americans. To the chagrin of the purists, too many other Americans (especially the "libbrals") are too accommodating of the increasing ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. In their opinion, government organizations, schools and hospitals are bending over backwards to make life easy for the "lazy" foreigners at the cost of our tax dollars. Recently, I had the following exchange with a friend and neighbor whose xenophobic tendencies I was always aware of but that has not interfered so far with our friendship:
She: Have you been to the mall lately?
Me: No, why?
She: You hear all this chatter in foreign languages around you. Sometimes it is hard to believe that we are in America.
Me: Are the speakers talking among themselves or are they trying to conduct business in their native languages?
She: Speaking among themselves.
Me: What's wrong with that?
She: Well, this is America. No one should be speaking a foreign language in public!
I was flabbergasted. It is one thing to expect that everyone in America should have some knowledge of English but quite another to demand that no other language should be used in public even in private conversations. I for one, tend to speak English most of the time, even with my family members. But if I happen to be with someone who speaks Bengali or an older relative, I would more likely than not, use an Indian language in my conversations. I do make sure that an "English only" speaker is not present in the group when I launch into my native tongue(s). I had no idea that the sound of people speaking a non-English language in private conversations can be so upsetting for some Americans. By the way, during my trip to Hawaii a year ago, I discovered that many Hawaiians do not speak English very well, some older ones, not at all. I dare anyone to call them un-American. I normally do not like to remind Euro-Americans that they too were immigrants once upon a time and not all their ancestors spoke English. But expressions of such unwarranted hostility deserve a retort like "Why fret about what America was like once upon a time? I don't see you smoking a peace pipe."