It was a bleak time for a city divided by the struggle between communism and democracy when President John F. Kennedy delivered what arguably became his best speech to a crowd of over one million West Berliners on June 26, 1963.
In the midst of the Cold War, Kennedy’s address spread hope among the Germans and built unity among American Allies. However, his infamous speech would be remembered for something far sweeter than its efforts to emphasize the failures of communism.
The highlight of his speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” an attempt to say, “I am a Berliner,” to most Germans translates to “I am a jelly donut.” To Kennedy’s credit, this almost epic language blunder was soothed by an approving roar from the crowd. He proceeded to thank his interpreter for translating his German, and light was made of his remark. But on this global stage, the spotlight caught glimpse of something other than the U.S. underlining its support for West Germany. It shined light on the malnourished condition of multilingualism in our country. Had Kennedy been a known fluent German speaker, his patriotic German rhetoric would not have been associated with a fried German dessert.
Despite being spotlighted in the 1960s, this lack of linguistic development remains an issue today. Despite being the melting pot that it is, the U.S. has somehow forgotten about the diversity of ingredients in makeup and remains as a monolingual capital of the world.
In 2000 the U.S. Census Bureau reported data on 30 different languages that were spoken in U.S. homes. This rich and varied list includes such languages as Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Italian. All told, about half a million or more Americans speak the languages— many also present on this campus. In spite of this wide-ranging collection of languages, we hold a 9 percent bilingual rate compared with the rest of the world’s 52 percent.
While we have been clenching down our jaw on English, the rest of the world has expanded its linguistic palate. In many countries, people aren’t considered fully educated unless they speak two or more languages. Often, the second language learned in other countries is English. Reasonable, considering English does dominate the business world. And that’s just it. While the rest of the world is making an effort to speak English, the U.S. has managed to get by with putting the linguistic melting pot on the backburner.
But we won’t always be catered to. It’s time for Americans to fire up the goods in the pot. They have brewed long enough, and our tongues are in dire need of nourishment.