On Sunday, I had two thoughts immediately following the multi-lingual “America is Beautiful” Coca-Cola ad:
“Wow, that was stunning.”
“…cue all of the anti-immigrant backlash.” *cringe*
As an anthropology enthusiast, former world-traveler, and general people-lover, I enjoy such celebrations of cultural diversity. (…even when it comes from a company like Coca-Cola, who doesn’t exactly have a clean history of ethical marketing. But I’ll set that aside for a moment.) Even so, I was not able to enjoy Coca-Cola’s celebration for long. I quickly anticipated what the fringe conservatives of the Internet would say in the name of patriotism, and I knew what articles the left-leaning blogs would write to properly shame them. I think we’ve all grown accustomed to this pattern.
But when the inevitable public shaming of all of the mean response tweets did appear in my newsfeed, it revealed something alongside ignorance and racism: a sizable percentage of the American public is monolingual, and prides themselves in being so. What’s more, most of the dissenting tweets carried the assumption that because someone speaks a foreign language, they don’t speak English.
A quick look at Coca-Cola’s YouTube channel would prove them wrong. Check out this video of Kennedy, who sings “America the Beautiful” in Senegalese French:
You’ll notice Kennedy also speaks American English. According to a study by Richard D. Tucker on global bilingualism, she is in good company: “there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual.” And in America? This study by Pew Research indicates that 21% of Americans “speak a language other than English at home.” (And of them, only 7% report no English skills at all.) That means, of the estimated 300 million people that live in the United States, only about 0.01% don’t speak English–hardly worth perceiving as a threat to the prominence of our common language.
There is a flood of research that indicates the cognitive and biological benefits of speaking multiple languages. So that’s just one indication that every voice heard in this commercial probably functions better in their world than any of the voices trying to tear them down.
Overall, the ignorance most represented in the negative responses to Coca-Cola’s ad is a case of false dichotomy: that for other languages to be spoken by Americans, English is threatened. This is not necessarily true. Language does not have to be an “either/or” choice. In most of the world, it’s “both/and”.
But this false dichotomy is not new. We are all familiar with what this mindset has done in the past. The prominence of English on our continent came at a cost; many rich and beautiful languages were diminished or wiped out altogether in the wave of immigrants that formed our now-united States. I know I’m in good company hoping to never see that repeated.
Thankfully, one of these surviving American languages had a spot in Coca-Cola’s commercial, too:
Christy, singing “America the Beautiful” in Keres, the language of the Keres-Pueblo people in New Mexico