“My Fair Lady” opens with Henry Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering coming out of the opera. They are met by a street vendor selling flowers. Her atrocious accent and Professor Higgins’ response to it constitute both the opening song and the underlying premise of the musical. Professor Higgins decries the effect that language has on advancement, telling Colonel Pickering, “If you spoke as she does, sir, Instead of the way you do, why, you might be selling flowers, too! It’s ‘Aoooow’ and ‘G’arn’ that keep her in her place. Not her wretched clothes and dirty face.” That street vendor, Eliza Doolittle, heard and understood Henry Higgins and decided to change her language to change her life.
In today’s America, language still matters. English is the key that unlocks the door to economic and social advancement. It is also the fabric that gives America its culture – a culture that has allowed people from every part of the world to leave Old World hatreds and stereotypes behind in a melding that is unique in the experience of civilization.
A culture can be understood through its language.
For example, the ancient Vikings had at least 13 different words for “snow”. We have no cultural equivalents for these distinctions in English, so all 13 of those words would be translated as the same word.
Americans translate the Spanish word mañana as “tomorrow”. In English, tomorrow means the day after today. So we would interpret someone saying, mañana on Tuesday to mean Wednesday.
That is a cultural interpretation.
In Spanish, someone saying, “manana” is actually saying “a day after today” – which could mean the next 24 hours, or could mean any time later than that. There is not an exact translation of this word into English because there is not an English word that matches this cultural description of time.
So when our immigrant ancestors came into this country, they understood that learning English was as much about becoming Americans as it was about achieving financial success. They were embracing the fullness of America’s culture, and in doing so, they were opening the doors to every blessing and opportunity that America had to offer.
It worked. It was not unusual to see the children of immigrant parents from one ethnic group marrying the children of immigrant parents from another ethnic group. Even if those ethnicities were hostile to each other in the home countries of the immigrant parents. The hostilities were lost when “immigrant” changed to “American”.
A common language makes that possible because it makes communication possible. When people can communicate, they can first reach across, and then eliminate, barriers. In sharing the words, they share the culture. And in America, that culture proclaims that all are welcome, no matter where they come from.
All a person needs to do is join us.
Let us hope that, like Eliza Doolittle, today’s immigrants take advantage of the invitation that America has extended to them. An invitation that begins with learning English.