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Spanish Language
National Anthem

Natalia J. Garland

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The immigration reform marches have apparently prompted someone to record a Spanish language version of America's national anthem, the "Star-Spangled Banner." If our national anthem is sung in Spanish, what does this mean? The first official translation of the national anthem into Spanish was in 1919, and included lyrics and music notation. There are currently four different Spanish versions of the national anthem on the Department of State website. Are these translations for informational purposes only, or is it acceptable to sing America's national anthem in other languages?

I have no objection to people singing the national anthem in Spanish--if they sing it from their heart as an expression of loyalty. Yes, immigrants should learn English. In the process of language acquisition, however, I see no harm in making available foreign language translations of our national anthem. English cannot be learned overnight, and we all want immigrants to understand and embrace American values. Some immigrants, especially older ones, will never learn English beyond minimal everyday communication. This does not mean that they do not work hard or are not patriotic. It is just a reality that becoming fluent in a second language is very difficult.

Having said that, let me add that now is not a good time to sing our national anthem in Spanish. People who have entered the country illegally and who want the privilege of U.S. citizenship should address American citizens in English. This is a matter of respect, and a means to inclusion in mainstream society. An insistence on the use of Spanish could be interpreted as an attempt at reconquista,* or the reconquering of the western portions of America for Mexico. Singing the national anthem in Spanish, during our present crisis, could be perceived as a symbolic overthrow of America. Hispanics who are sincere about becoming Americans must not allow their desires to be identified with or manipulated by extremist factions.

Americans are poverty-stricken when it comes to speaking foreign languages. I like English. It is a complicated but rich language. It is our national language, and I want to make it clear that I do NOT think we should be a bilingual nation. But we seem to have a language-learning timidity or anxiety that cripples our ability to function in a global society. The Long Beach Unified School District [California] states this problem in a positive way.

Language and communication are at the heart of the human experience. The United States must educate students who are equipped linguistically and culturally to communicate in our democratic society and abroad. This is the philosophy of our country's national standards on foreign language learning. The standards call for a future in which all students are well-versed in English and at least one other language, modern or classical. The national standards also say that children who come from non-English-speaking backgrounds should further develop their skill in their first language.
[End of quote.]

Most children and grandchildren of immigrants will eventually lose any knowledge of their ancestral language (unless there is a cultural refusal to adopt English, which seems to be true of the extremist Mexican factions). I have known different people--Italian, Polish, Greek--who regret having lost their ability to speak those languages and to pass it on to their children. This loss, combined with a lack of language-learning retention from school, makes Americans academically inferior and politically vulnerable.

When I was a schoolgirl, the foreign languages offered (not required) were French, German, and Spanish. These remain the major languages taught today. Yet, politically, we need people who have mastered Japanese, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. Scholastically, we still need people who can read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (and I would throw in Sanskrit as well). Whether or not the national anthem should be sung in Spanish is less significant than our greater language needs. I think every American should have a command of a second language. Americans need to wake up to the power of languages. (Written 05/04/06: bibliography available.)

[*ADDED NOTE: To read more about reconquista, see my essays Vodka Solves Nothing (written 04/14/08), Illegal Immigration as a Social Problem, Part I Section (1) (written 05/30/07), Cinco de Mayo at the Crossroads (written 07/04/10).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2006 Natalia J. Garland