Language in Advertising, Language on TV

The Duality of #SpeakAmerican

If you didn’t watch the Super Bowl, there’s still a good chance that you heard about the controversy surrounding Coca-Cola’s commercial where “America the Beautiful” was performed by various singers, with different lines sung in different languages. If you missed it, you can watch it below.

The controversy I’m talking about was the backlash centered on the trending hashtag #SpeakAmerican. It was used by two groups: those who felt offended by the multilingual ad, and those responding to these complaints as a means to show solidarity and support the diversity celebrated by the ad. While I believe that everyone has a right to express their opinions, it definitely saddened me to see such negativity directed towards every language other than English.

In grad school, one of my first projects was to research and debate the Pro “English Only” movement in the U.S. I chose to debate the “pro” side primarily because I felt I would learn more by researching an opinion that was different from my own. In case you aren’t aware, one of the goals of the “English Only” movement, and other movements like it, is to make English the official language of the U.S. because currently, there IS no official language. Not surprisingly, many of the negative #SpeakAmerican tweets I saw brought up the idea of English, or American English, as being official. Sorry to burst your bubbles, guys.

Indeed, using #SpeakAmerican, rather than #SpeakEnglish, is telling. English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and it’s probable that many of the singers in the ad were fluent in more than one language. In fact, being multilingual is the norm for much of the rest of the world—this week alone I’ve watched several Olympic interviews with athletes from various countries that were conducted in English. So why is multilingualism seen by some people as such a negative?

My thought is that maybe the fact that the United States is made up of such a wonderful mix of people, with such a variety of languages and cultures, maybe this variety is interpreted as threatening. That those who do not (outwardly at least) seem to adopt or adapt to a homogeneous language and culture are thought to be the enemy, because they are holding onto traditions that tie them to another place.

But as many of the supporters of the commercial pointed out, to #SpeakAmerican IS to speak multiple languages. That the fact that there is no official language means that all languages should be considered equal, and therefore all speakers are considered equal. In fact, the song chosen, “America the Beautiful,” was extremely appropriate: its first verse is about the wide expanse of the land itself, the second about the first immigrants—the pilgrims, and the third about those who died to create a free nation. With all these verses celebrating various forms of freedom, adding a nod to the freedom to speak all languages is a perfect cherry on top.

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