Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."
When she was a young adult, my high school English Honors teacher and her friend were traveling in Europe. They encountered a man who attempted to communicate with them. At first, he spoke one language, and they couldn't understand him. So he tried again with another language and then another. On his fourth try, in English, he asked them, "Are you American?"
If you have been paying attention to any news regarding the Miss Universe 2018 beauty pageant being held in Bangkok, Thailand, you may have heard of the recent controversy surrounding the comments Sarah Rose Summers, Miss USA, made about some of her fellow contestants in regards to their proficiency in English or, rather, the lack of it.
During a live video on Instagram, Summers, along with Miss Colombia Valeria Morales and Miss Australia Francesca Hung, spoke their thoughts on the English speaking skills of Miss Vietnam H'Hen Nie and Miss Cambodia Rern Sinat, fellow Miss Universe hopefuls.
In regards to the former, Summers says, "She's so cute, and she pretends to know so much English. And then you ask her a question after having a whole conversation with her, and she goes," proceeding to smile and nod in imitation of Nie. After laughing, Summer says that she's adorable and imitates her again.
She comments on the next contestant, Sinat, saying, "Miss Cambodia is here and doesn't speak any English, and not a single person here speaks her language. Can you imagine?" She states that Hung believes it must be isolating and how she herself finds it confusing. She then compares Sinat to Morales and comments on how, at least, Morales knows "very good" English. She later apologized for her words.
Though not all her words were negative in nature, the level of condescension that colored her tone was telling to many, causing a backlash against Summers online and in media as people criticized her for being ignorant and cruel. People have even compared her to the well-known Regina George from "Mean Girls."
However, what is so glaring from her behavior is not just her ignorance but rather how much it is a mere reflection of her environment and a result of the ethnocentrism so many Americans display, especially when it comes to American culture and language.
In the United States, there is a domestic political and social war being waged over immigration. In politics, immigration policies are often contested, revised, and debated. Socially, there have been quite a few instances where civilians took it upon themselves to make their opinions on the topic known, targeting immigrants and citizens alike with phrases like "go back to your country" and "speak English."
We also have a president who many times on record has not said the most tolerant things about those who are not American or perceived as "not American enough."
Americans are often viewed as loud, rude, and ignorant by others even if it is not always the case. Some of us walk around like the world owes us something for being born where we were, and we expect them to meet us in our circumstances, displaying an immense amount of entitlement. The same is so when it comes to "our language," English.
Despite foreign languages being a requirement in many American schools (about 93% of all high schools), less than one percent of American adults are proficient in the foreign language they studied in school. You know the stories of Americans going abroad and expecting others to know English, and some of them believing that saying it louder and slower, exaggerating the tongue while doing charades, is going to get us understood.
Moreover, within our own borders, as stated before, many of us demand others to speak English when they don't know it or when they do but choose to speak another language because of cultural reasons or relationships. "You're in America! Speak English!" You're on our turf. Get with the program or go home. That's our attitude.
Did you know that the United States doesn't have an official or national language? Oh, people have certainly tried to amend that, proposing English to be designated our country's language. Here are some examples of proposals put forth:
"The English language shall be the official language of the United States. As the official language, the English language shall be used for all public acts including every order, resolution, vote, or election, and for all records and judicial proceedings of the Government of the United States and the governments of the several States." (House of Representatives as H.J. Res. 16 — 107th Congress)
"The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the United States of America. Unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English." (H.R. 3333 — 107th Congress)
An amendment was never made though because people fought back, arguing that it went against the idea of America being an accumulation of customs and cultures, a "melting pot" of people. By declaring ourselves basically an English-only country, we would be isolating those within our country to conform to our standards and expectations.
Almost every country in Europe requires students as young as six years old to learn a foreign language, and many walk away knowing two or three languages. Being in proximity to many other countries with their own languages, people learn by exposure, as well. It is something not every or many Americans can claim.
My friend, Hugo, is from France. He came to this university because he wanted to be able to continue practicing piano despite majoring in math. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he is fluent in or sufficiently passing in French, English, Spanish, and German.
In France (and in Poland for a time), he was taught the basics of English in elementary school. It was a requirement for one language to be selected in sixth grade and another in eighth grade, resulting in him learning Spanish and German. Most of his peers are bilingual, and many are passably trilingual. Some even know more languages than he, and Hugo is choosing to learn other languages on his own still.
It's not that I am arguing that Americans need to learn more languages than just English. I think they should, but that's not the point. We need to stop demanding as a country for others to conform to us. Summers wasn't just mocking her fellow contestants for not speaking English; she was belittling them for not speaking her language.
The sad irony is that the pageant was taking place in Thailand where the official and national language is Thai. Where does she get off on expecting others to speak English in a country where it isn't even the common tongue? How would Summers feel if someone told her to speak Thai or mocked her for not?
Yes, English is the lingua franca, and it is a common language to know. Yet it is evident that not everyone knows it, and many people never had the opportunity to learn it. Maybe they didn't even have the inclination to learn it because it wasn't necessary or practical. English is only the third most spoken language in the world, being beaten by Chinese and Spanish, ironically.
So, even if you don't feel the need to learn another language yourself or you too never had the chance to learn more than English, that's okay, as long as you and others around you stop demanding the world to conform.
Miss USA, you were sent to represent our country, and some of us are ashamed that you did it so well.