Thing-a-day 7: Languages That Didn’t Make the Cut

How would that controversial Coke ad have sounded with a line in Klingon? Or dolphin?

Coke’s ad was nice. The company has famously expressed its wish to buy the world a Coke, and many people have a bottle or can of Coke labeled in a foreign language, that they kept after a trip abroad. You can even buy them on eBay. Appearing throughout popular culture in movies, books, and music, it has had remarkable, multichannel success in Coca-Colanization of more or less the entire planet. Coke does business (in a friend’s words) “in every country that isn’t actually on fire” — and probably in a few that are.

The United States population is composed primarily of people who came from other places in the world, or whose fairly recent relatives did. Over the last 400 years, North America has drawn speakers of almost every language with the promise of a new life, of new opportunity. It has refined the idea of the melting pot, with whole generations of immigrants refusing to teach their children their native languages, not wanting to hold them back from assimilation. America the Beautiful is almost necessarily an idea in foreign languages — when they got here, many immigrants found a day-to-day life of backbreaking work, with the best hope of opportunity resting on that of their children to have a better standard of living than they did. It’s an essential aspect of the American experience, the essence of the American dream.

A lot of people didn’t like this ad, calling the foreign languages un-American. I saw some particularly vociferous critiques of it from people whose family names made it clear that their own great-grandparents, give or take a generation or two, might never have been able to form a full sentence in English without difficulty. I think about stories from my own family, about the native tongue being forbidden — mostly with sadness now that we understand more about the cognitive advantages of being bilingual. Well-meaning but short-sighted, rejecting the languages of our forefathers is a powerful signal of affiliation but at a steep cost of isolation, which can rob us of compassion. The language issue was such a powerful flashpoint for many people that they didn’t even notice the gay couple. Maybe that’s progress.

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