Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Nuestro Himno

If you haven't been in a cave for the past few weeks, you've probably heard all the hoopla about "Nuestro Himno," the Spanish-language version of "The Star Spangled Banner." NPR has the lyrics and a recording of Nuestro Himno. Some discussion of the reaction may be found on CNN, and George W. Bush has stated unequivocally that he only want people to sing the National Anthem in English.

For the moment, I'd like to put aside the issue of illegal imigration. I'd also like to ignore the fact that Nuestro Himno, as written, takes a few liberties with The Star Spangled Banner, and contains a bit of modern day politics. Ignoring those two issues, I'd like to know: What's the big deal? Why all the condemnations and proclamations about the appropriate language for our national anthem?

If somebody wants to sing the National Anthem in a language other than English, let them do it. It's a free country, and we're all free to speak our mind on whatever subject we want in whatever language we want. I'm proud to be an American with those rights. And I'm a little concerned that some other Americans feel so insecure in their national identity that they need to condemn the language used by others to make a political statement.

I just don't see the need to wrap up and summarize one's national identity with a language in order to exclude those who wish to be part of the political process but choose to use a different language. Don't get me wrong: Proficiency in the English language is one of the most important tools a person can use to succeed in the United States. The ability to read and write clearly in English strongly correlates with economic success. English has become a lingua franca used around the world. A strong connection exists between American culture and the English language, and the overwhelming majority of our literature has been written in English. But all this means is that we should applaud English for what it has become, not denigrate other languages because they're not English.

Just about any immigrant knows that proficiency in English is an important key to success, especially for their children. There's no conspiracy to take away English from America. Because of that, when talking heads and political figures use grandstanding to demand that people communicate certain concepts -- such as the National Anthem -- in English, I can't help but wonder if their real purpose is preaching to the choir with a xenophobic message about a problem that doesn't exist. Why should anybody be offended by the particular language that somebody uses to express a concept? If it's easier for the speaker to make their point in that language, so be it. I repeat: It's a free country, and I can say what I want in whatever language I want. No offense meant to any Quebecois around, but I don't want my government giving me directives about the language used on gravestone monuments. (It's worth mentioning that at the opening ceremonies to the Calgary Olympics in 1988, I remember that "Oh Canada" was sung not in English or French, but in a Native American language.)

When my mother and her parents came to this country, they didn't speak English. They learned it, eventually, but they never felt the need to hide the fact that they were multilingual. They certainly didn't feel any less American because of it.

There's no moral disaster that will occur in this country because some group has decided to translate the National Anthem into Spanish. There's certainly no reason to believe that there's some dangerous plot to take away English from the United States that will succeed if we don't "send a message" that the National Anthem must be sung in English. Unfortunately, this type of paranoia appears to be what occurs when people become so infatuated of the symbolism of the language used by a nationality that they lose the forest for the trees. There's no symbolic battle that needs to be won in order to assure the place of English in American culture. Making meainingless pronouncements to stoke nationalist pride over the potential pollution of a symbol is a really horrid way to engage in a political debate.

If somebody disagrees with the content of the translation itself or with the (necessary) national discussion about immigration, then go ahead and make your point. But please don't attack people for the language they use to express their own opinions. It's a free country, after all. And that's what makes us great.

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