During the 2014 Super Bowl, Coca-Cola aired an advertisement that sparked significant outrage and controversy across America. The ad featured “America the Beautiful” sung in English, Spanish, Senegalese-French, Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, Arabic, Hindi and Keres, a Pueblo language. The song played over a series of scenes depicting the geographic and cultural diversity of the country. In each scene, Coke is portrayed as the common link between people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
The ad was both lauded and decried. Those offended took to social media to express their outrage. Some Twitter users likened the singing of “America the Beautiful” in any language other than English to an act of treason and an offense against patriots and “real” Americans. #SpeakAmerican and #BoycottCoke became trending topics within minutes. The social media outcry persisted in the days following the Super Bowl. This reaction demonstrates that it is time for a collective shift in thinking regarding language diversity, which should be celebrated rather than ignored or condemned.
It is a strange phenomenon that any citizen of the United States, which is home to more immigrant groups than any other in the world, could claim only one language to be “American,” especially since English is borrowed from our European colonizers. Nativist movements have operated on similar principles throughout American history, which has led to the targeting and persecution of many minority groups. Throughout history, these groups have shed their native tongues in favor of adopting English as their primary language and becoming “American.”
The most recent immigrant group in my own family is Italian. When I asked my father why his parents did not speak Italian to him at home, he explained that when he was growing up everyone “wanted to be American.” Living in Ithaca, New York, which was relatively homogeneous despite being a university town, his family did not want to stand out as Italian Americans, but rather wanted to blend in with those whose families had been living in America for decades.
Linguistic diversity is one of many indicators of the vast heterogeneity of US citizens. While the majority of Americans speak English, it is estimated that over three hundred languages are spoken across the fifty states. Of course, it is important for citizens and long-term residents of the US to learn English in order to actively engage in their communities. However, second and third languages should also be treasured and passed down through the generations rather than discarded.
Improved language education throughout American schools and universities would serve as a significant step forward. The need for a movement towards foreign language education has been likened to the shift towards science and mathematics education that was promoted by the government after Sputnik in 1957. From an economic standpoint, Americans cannot rely on every other country to learn English, but must learn foreign languages in order to actively engage in the global economy and political sphere.
While investment in foreign language education in American schools would be a strategic move economically speaking, it also would also have significant social value. If children grow up with an appreciation for foreign languages, they are far less likely to see those languages as “un-American.” An effective way to encourage acceptance of domestic diversity is to give students the ability to see their world through a new lens, which can be accomplished through the instruction of foreign language.
Coca-Cola has vigorously defended the ad since it aired, and has even released an extended version to celebrate the Sochi Olympics. While many Americans appreciated the beautiful portrayal of the US that Coca Cola put forward (#AmericaIsBeautiful also trended during the Super Bowl), we cannot ignore the implications of the overwhelmingly negative reaction that many had to it. As English becomes the lingua franca of the modern, highly connected world, we should be celebrating — not disparaging — our diversity. The resistance to this ad points out a significant problem with our communal mindset as Americans, which is that we still define becoming “American” as the neutralization of cultural and linguistic diversity. The American spirit of innovation and perseverance cannot survive while we continue to shame our own citizens for their diverse backgrounds, values and cultures.
Mary Russo is a Viewpoint Writer.