Politics, Moderate

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Politics

'American' is not a language

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- People who care deeply about language are sticklers for precision. But it doesn't take a grammar freak to take offense at the notion that the words "American" and "English" are synonymous.

This is what makes so maddening the viral video that ricocheted across the web last week of a high school English teacher in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, telling students to stop speaking Spanish in class, elaborating that the men and women in the military "are not fighting for your right to speak Spanish. They're fighting for your right to speak American."

Really?

And what, exactly, is this mystical language called "American"? Where does one go to learn to speak it? What is its structure? How about its rules and conventions?

It's one thing for someone like Sarah Palin -- a politician capitalizing on a homespun, folksy, uber-patriotism that sells books and garners media attention -- to misidentify the language of the United States as "American."

But it's quite another for a teacher -- an English teacher, for Pete's sake, who, theoretically has an undergraduate degree that required several courses in which the mechanics of the English language were investigated -- to utter such a ridiculous thing.

It is a slip of the tongue that betrays not a desire for students to practice and master a language, but, indeed, to conform to a very narrow notion of what American culture is.

Do not, for a second, think that I'm advocating for students to speak other languages in English-speaking classrooms -- I am not.

In schools with student populations that speak languages other than English -- which is to say, the majority of public and private schools in this country -- it is vitally important for English-speaking students to be respectful of others who may be just learning this country's language or are fluently bilingual and can easily switch between languages.

It is equally important for students who are either bilingual or learning English to stick to it in classroom settings.

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