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Lost Histories of Bilingualism


Lost Histories of Bilingualism

A week ago, while watching the Superbowl with friends, I saw Coca Cola’s now-famed ad E Pluribus Unum. At first, I was puzzled why I wasn’t following the lyrics to America the Beautiful, then realized they were being sung in multiple languages — English, Spanish, Keres (an indigenous American language), Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French and Hebrew. Regarding pluralism as normal, I appreciated what Coke was doing (even though I don’t appreciate sugary drinks), admired the artistry of the ad, then promptly forgot about it.

I was surprised a few days later to hear about the tremendous uproar it prompted. We have certainly lost our histories of bilingualism! On Coca Cola’s Facebook page, while there are far more likes than dislikes, the comments section includes things like the following:

Disgraceful!UnpatrioticSpeak English or go homeNo Coke for meDe-Americanize America, divide and conquer

While I do not know those who are offended by the ad personally, I do know many people (most of whom are of European descent) who share their sentiment. Many us Euro-Americans assume our ancestors readily and willingly traded in the languages and cultures they brought in order to become American. For a huge number of us, however, this assumption is false. But since our own histories were suppressed in the process of erasing our ancestors’ languages, we aren’t aware of those histories. Let me share a bit of mine that I uncovered using family history research tools.

My father’s side of the family was of German descent. My German immigrant ancestors arrived to the U.S. between 1843 and 1868, most coming to Illinois but at least one to Pennsylvania. As nearly as I have been able to piece together, they left Germany primarily because of a combination of war as Prussia was expanding, poor crops leading to the possibility of famine, and to join other family members who preceded them. They helped to create and lived within what became bilingual, bicultural communities. In their case, the German church was an important institution that maintained bilingualism for about sixty years. How do I know that?

1. Visiting where my…

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