Proud to be… American? Recent surveys show some Americans see language as a key part of our culture. What do CHS students and staff think?
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After moving halfway across the world from China to the United States in the summer before her sophomore year, Qitao “Rachel” Du, former English as a New Language (ENL) student and junior, took a test in the counseling center that measured her ability in the English language.
“They tested me on reading, listening, speaking and writing. (For the speaking portion,) the ENL teacher gave me a comic and asked me what did I see on it, and try to tell a story,” Du said.
The ENL program placed Du in Level 3, an intermediate level in the scale for fluency in English. Once the school year started and Du stepped into the halls of CHS, she said she had a hard time adapting to her new life in the school.
“I actually went through a hard time first coming to a new school. I had to adopt many new things: the language, the environment and classes in America are also very different,” Du said.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 70 percent of people in the United States felt being able to speak the national language is the core of national identity. Furthermore, out of people ages 18 to 34, 58 percent believed speaking English is important to national identity. In addition, people with high school degrees were more likely to have that opinion than those with college degrees. However, the English language is not the official language of the United States, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. Thus, people may question exactly what the national language is and how it plays into determining how “American” a U.S. citizen is.
As a former foreign student, Du said she does not agree with the previous views. To her, the national language is not the core of national identity. She said having lived in China nearly all her life, she still sees herself as mainly Chinese and not American, not because she grew up speaking the language but because she understood Chinese culture.
“To make people American, I think the first thing is to try and learn the culture and embrace their culture, which is how people interact with other people and the ways of living. I don’t think language is the main part of the culture. It’s probably a small part, but not the main part,” Du said.
English and ENL teacher Kristin Beeson said she agrees with Du. She said she thinks culture is multifaceted and is subjective to each person, and just because someone is not fluent in the language doesn’t mean he or she is not part of the culture.
“There are a variety of factors (involved with culture), and it differs from person to person, but I would tend to think anthropologically. Basically, I feel like typically commonalities, in terms of food, stories like myths and legends and literature, language, religion to some extent, could all be unifying factors within a culture,” Beeson said.
According to Gordon Copee, AP U.S. History teacher, there were many defining moments in U.S. history that not only shaped American culture but also included people from various countries in hopes of freedom and a new life. Immigration dramatically increased in the mid to late 1800s, and the World Wars, Cold War and Great Depression all defined what it meant to be American.
“I think it lends to sort of creating, what people refer to as, the ‘cultural melting pot:’ being more inclusive of people who speak different languages and come from different cultures and backgrounds. American culture isn’t what it is without immigration and people coming in and influencing American culture in different ways,” Copee said.
Still, Copee said speaking English and knowing the language would certainly be helpful, as it is the most popularly spoken language in the United States.
“I think it’s certainly helpful to know English. But, I don’t think it’s in our best interests to declare it or try to make it a national language with all of the different cultures. In the United States, I think it’s important to celebrate all of the different cultures and diversity.” Copee said.
Yet, as once a student who couldn’t speak English well in a new school in a totally new country, Du said she thinks being immersed in a culture is more about interacting with people. She said the language could help her learn, but it is not a major factor.
Du said, “I’d like to know more about the ways people use to interact with others, and things that people should be aware of in daily life. I feel like Americans chat differently compared to how I chat with my friends from China, so I think it’s important to know more about that.”