Some Hancock County citizens are still uncomfortable around other languages. They think people are talking about them. If you have this paranoia, you might consider it the mark of a true American, but it’s just a self-inflicted oversensitivity. Relax.
First of all, those of us who use languages besides English aren’t thinking about bystanders when we’re talking — unless we switch languages because we need more privacy. This is equivalent to you taking a remote table at a restaurant to be more alone with a friend. Multilingual people wouldn’t think you were talking about them unless you were pointing at them and laughing and whispering.
You wouldn’t do that, would you? And you’d be surprised if we thought you were talking about us, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you find it hard to believe that someone else thought they were a priority in your conversation?
Wouldn’t you be startled to discover that we imagined you were talking about us because we couldn’t hear what you were saying? If you’re going to stay out of hearing distance, you must be talking about us! Sit closer so we can monitor your rudeness.
But we know we aren’t in your thoughts.
Spend a day in one of the national parks and get the feel of the larger America. It has always been more than English. English was a late arrival. My wife and I were in Yosemite National Park for three days last summer, and it felt like we were in every nation of the world at the same time.
We heard so many languages. And, as my wife noted, nobody was talking about us. Everyone was talking about the mountains, the streams, the waterfalls, the wildlife.
Something kind of amazing became noticeable as we spent more time on the trails with thousands of hikers. Almost all of them could switch to English whenever they wanted, perhaps to assure Americans that they weren’t talking about them.
Try that when you’re lowering your voice in the store to keep from being heard or when you’re sitting at a secluded table at a restaurant. Holler out, “Excuse me, everyone. I know you think we’re talking about you, but we’re not. We understand why you’d assume you’re a hot topic for us, but, cross my heart, we do have other things to talk about. So go ahead and continue whatever you’re doing, knowing that we are not gossiping about you and discussing the fitness plan we’d like to recommend to you. We trust you’re not talking about us, either. We certainly hope you’re not.”
Hiking in Yosemite and hearing English come out of the mouths of people of many nationalities was stunning. More striking was to hear so many of them speaking English exactly the way you do.
These were fellow Americans whose parents were born in Malaysia, Russia, China, Kenya, Eritrea, France, Burma, Costa Rica, Spain, Japan — and in the United States.
Some of them have always lived in the U.S. They’ve kept the languages of their heritage, enlisted in the armed forces, served in law enforcement and local government, taught in schools, worked in factories, invented useful products.
And they speak other languages because this is a free country, a land where people ought to be free to be themselves without worrying about you worrying about who they’re talking about when they aren’t even thinking about you.
A young man who prided himself on being progressive told me, “This is America. Speak English.” I invite him and you into the world of “more than English.” It’s a much bigger world and more American than his.
Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence and nonprofit communities. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfield reporter.com.