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Bilingualism Is Patriotism by Another Name

By Steve Leveen | Published: February 16, 2021

For an American to become bilingual is an act of patriotism. By becoming bilingual, we honor those who have used bilingualism to help build America.

We also practice patriotism when we help others around the world practice English, and those around the corner—our fellow Americans who are learning English. Because while we help them, they help us learn, too. This kind of patriotism helps America build its soft power. It is right and honorable.

Two young white women in glasses sit before a fireplace, conversint over notebooks.
American bilinguals have a unique ability to connect with
others, support them through their language journeys,
and honor the diversity of our nation.

Imagine if there were an honor code that American bilinguals followed. If such an honor code existed, it would be a collaborative effort of many people from many perspectives, including staff and villagers from Concordia Language Villages. As a kick-start, I offer this rough draft.

The American Bilingual Honor Code

First Practice. As a native English speaker, be aware that the world contains many more people who are learning English or speak English as a second language. Since their skills vary dramatically, adjust your speech accordingly. This generally means speaking slowly and clearly and without much idiom. There’s nothing like being a language learner yourself to appreciate the importance of this. Give to English learners the encouragement that you want native speakers to give to you with your adopted language.

Second Practice. When you hear fellow Americans speaking a language other than English, smile and know that you’re hearing American linguistic capital being strengthened. These bilinguals are coming out of the home and speaking their language in public, which is what America needs to encourage.

Third Practice. Be sensitive to those around you who want to be part of the conversation, and speak the language all of you have in common.

Fourth Practice. By being a lifelong language learner with your adopted language, you are supporting a vital industry made up of teachers and tutors, social scientists and scholars, programmers and businesspeople. Your support can continue a virtuous flywheel of growth.

Fifth Practice. Be understanding toward monolinguals. Few people are happy about being monolinguals, and some may express their unhappiness with anger or hostility. Model the empathy that rides along with bilingualism and, when appropriate, let monolinguals know they, too, can learn another language.

Sixth Practice. Plant buds of bilingualism, those few small expressions in another’s language that you practice until they’re near perfect—thank you, nice to meet you. Seldom can so much goodwill blossom from so few words.

Seventh Practice. Encourage people to maintain their heritage languages and to pass them on to their children. Bilingualism is the path for building a stronger America, and for preserving languages worldwide.

About the Author

Photo by Kimberly B. Wogan

Steve Leveen is the author of America’s Bilingual Century: How Americans are giving the gift of bilingualism to themselves, their loved ones, and their country (America the Bilingual Press, 2021). He conducted part of his research during the pre-pandemic summer camp at Concordia Language Villages, which he also spotlighted on Episode 37 of the America the Bilingual podcast.

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