Embrace languages -- especially English

May 01, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

J'engage ma fidelitM-I au drapeau des M-Itats-Unis d'AmM-irique et M-` la RM-ipublique qu'il rM-ipresente, une nation sous Dieu, indivisible, avec libertM-i et justice pour tous.

That's the American Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I learned it in French class at what was then Harlem Park Junior High School (now the soon-to-be-defunct Harlem Park Middle School). I could tell you that, 40 years after graduating from Harlem Park, I still remembered the entire thing. But you know I'd be lying.

I needed a little help from the Web site www.secstate. wa.gov. There's also a version in German. And one in Spanish:

Yo prometo lealtad a la bandera de los Estados Unidos de America, y a la Republica que representa, una Nacion bajo Dios, entera, con libertad y justicia para todos.

That's one I didn't learn at Harlem Park. I didn't take Spanish. I wish I had. Then I'd be better able to judge whether the controversy over a Spanish-language version of our national anthem is justified or a tempest in a teapot.

If we teach our students the Pledge of Allegiance in French (I assume Spanish students are taught it in Spanish), then what's the problem with a Spanish-language version of the national anthem? When my daughter was a student at Baltimore City College, she learned the Pledge in Latin.

At Harlem Park we learned the French national anthem. We also sang it, and I'm convinced we mangled it quite horribly. Had anyone in the French government heard our version of it, France may have justifiably declared war on us.

But, in light of the American-anthem-in-Spanish controversy, I had this thought: How would "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, sound in English? Or in any language other than French?

Ugh.

Therein, I suspect, is the problem that some - it may indeed be many - Americans have with a Spanish-language version of our national anthem. It may not be the greatest song in the world. And when we sing it, we usually sing it terribly. But at least we do it in English.

The switch to Spanish isn't the only controversy, or even the major one. The Spanish version of the national anthem isn't like the Spanish version of the Pledge of Allegiance, where English is replaced word for word in Spanish. According to news reports, the Spanish version of the anthem revises and edits "The Star-Spangled Banner."

One line reads, "My people keep fighting; it's time to break the chains."

Hmm. That sounds like it could be a line from a national anthem for black Americans, except we already have one. But James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was never meant as a substitute for "The Star-Spangled Banner," much less an attempt to revise and edit it.

Hispanics may claim that nuestro himno is simply their "Lift Every Voice and Sing." They'd have a valid point, but they'd also have to ask themselves where does this business of separate national anthems for different racial and ethnic groups end? Do we have one for every racial and ethnic group in America, or only one?

Should we have one official language in America, or one for every immigrant group? I'm for making English America's official language. I'm also for requiring that every American student graduate from high school fluent in Spanish and French. Those two positions are neither mutually exclusive nor contradictory.

No group of people is more prickly about their national language than the French. Yet on my two trips to Cuba, I noticed that French tourists there were fluent in English and Spanish. The Afro-Antilleans of Panama - descendants of that predominantly black work force who dug the Panama Canal - live in a bilingual world. They slip easily from English to Spanish and back again.

I visited Panama two years ago with a group of reporters from the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies. We used Afro-Antilleans as our much-needed guides. My Spanish was limited to saying hello, goodbye and DM-snde estM-a el baM-qo? ("Where's the restroom?")

That should not be the case. Americans can be bilingual and multilingual while having English as our official language. Will we do that?

Several weeks ago I talked to Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. The subject was high school assessment tests students take in biology, government, English and algebra. At one point I mentioned to Reinhard that those assessments should include one in Spanish and one in French.

He chuckled. I chuckled. The laughs were "We know that ain't ever gonna happen" chuckles.

It should. We must not be a bi-anthem or multi-anthem country. But we're certainly capable of being bilingual and multilingual.

gregory.kane@baltsun.com

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