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Linguistic Imperialism: When English Trumps All

“This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish,” said then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, of opponent Jeb Bush, whose wife is from Mexico and whose children are Hispanic. “[He] should really set an example by speaking English while in the United States.”

Never mind Melania’s fluency in five languages.

The Trump campaign’s “America first” mindset is what ultimately won him the presidency, and is a byproduct of the reality that Americans have been subconsciously effectuating this same nativist perspective for years. In 2016, his campaign spent a total of zero dollars on Spanish advertisements, compared to the 23 million spent by candidates for the 2012 presidential race. Linguistic imperialism, thanks to Donald Trump, is alive and well. America is failing to foster and protect linguistic diversity at home, as domestically endangered languages are forgotten. Inherently understood to be a political liability, Trumpian principles assert that “un-American” dialects are unnecessary. While fluency in English has proven to be at the forefront of both domestic and international priorities, future generations of Americans will suffer from cultural and intellectual ignorance as a result of unilingualism.

Navajo-born Sierra Teller Ornelas discusses the importance of her indigenous language in a New York Times article, entitled Donald Trump Would Make a Terrible Navajo. In the editorial, Ornelas says she was “raised to believe that one’s language is everything […] it’s the best way to learn our history, our religion, our songs, our principles.” Even though code talkers used the Navajo dialect to turn the tide of World War II, the Endangered Language Project still classifies Navajo as “at risk” of extinction.

The “dominance of English [is what] threatens the survival of the 54 indigenous languages of the Northwest Pacific plateau of North America,” writes John Noble Wilford, in his New York Times report. In fact, Wilford says languages worldwide are now “falling out of use at a rate of one every two weeks.”

In an age of unprecedented global connectivity, some form of universal communication is admittedly required, but when it is followed by extinction of indigenous dialects, so too comes human rights infringement and loss of communal identity. Simultaneously, the chauvinistic nature of the Trumpian era begs the question of whether an English-speaking world would bring about international unity or helpless conformity.

Meanwhile, the U.S. education system has no national foreign language mandate, and the Department of Education under controversial Trump-appointee Betsy DeVos has proven unlikely to change that. Spanish professor Kaitlin Thomas observes that, in this political climate, “pursuing foreign language and cultural studies is in conflict with current ideas around what patriotism or loyalty means in the United States.”

There are experts who hypothesize that there exists an inextricable link between the language one speaks and how that individual perceives the world. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory within the linguistic community, boldly states that language is the strongest determinant of one’s thought pattern. It was even the basis of the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Arrival, in which Amy Adams, a linguistic professor, saves the world by learning a new language. The idea is that by learning grammatical intricacies, like abnormal verb tenses and gender-identifying nouns, and through immersive conversational practice, the brain begins to think differently. Considering how certain aboriginal languages require speakers to know their exact cardinal location to give a simple greeting, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Promoting foreign language education might just be the precise way to rewire the “America first” mindset, and by preserving this country’s indigenous languages, and therefore culture, generations to come will realize just how great America always has been. While the current First Lady may be uniquely equipped to join multinational conversations, the U.S. has not elected a fluently bilingual president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. 2020 will serve as an opportunity to change that.

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