The sticker I saw on the vehicle’s back window said, “Welcome to America. Now speak English!”
I have no idea whose vehicle it was. I’m wondering if, like me, they have grandparents and great-grandparents who came to America from non-English speaking countries; in my case, the Netherlands. My Grandpa B.D. Dykstra, for example. He was a brilliant man. He had an amazing gift for languages — and spoke at least six fluently. Arriving in this country, he of course learned English — and did so far more quickly than most. He nevertheless for decades published a Dutch Newspaper for the many Dutch speakers in Sioux County, Iowa, some of whom had learned to speak English and some of whom never did. But in either case they read Grandpa’s newspaper — the “Volksvriend” — for Dutch was the language of their upbringing and their culture.
I don’t speak Dutch. I wish I did. Unfortunately, that skill stopped being taught and valued in my family with my generation. I didn’t know it at the time, but my English-only upbringing would eventually come to sadden me. My wife and daughter and I are visiting the Netherlands this fall. Its language, which I won’t learn to speak (at least certainly not before then!) will nevertheless ever be the language of my ancestors and my history.
I have since become a pastor in the Lutheran Church, where the predominant cultures I’ve met are German and Scandinavian. The church I served in Lake Mills, Iowa was formed in the 1870s. And those who formed that church became Americans: they pursued America’s dream, they saluted America’s flag, and their sons served and died in America’s wars. That said, that congregation kept offering Norwegian speaking services for more than six decades. By then, the mid-1930s, all of the members spoke English. But over those six decades, Norwegian was the language of their faith, and their hearts, and their prayers. Even after the mid-1930s, many of them — when they said the Lord’s Prayer or table prayers — continued to do so in Norwegian.
So what I’d like to say to new Americans today is different from that message on the sticker I saw. I’d like to say, “Welcome to America!”
It’s a unique place in the world. Since its founding it’s never not been a melting pot — a delicious casserole — of cultures and languages from all over the world. You’ll find soon enough that it will be helpful for you in many ways if you learn English. If there’s any way I can help, let me know! For example, if you’d like to get together once in a while over coffee or something just to practice English with someone, count me in. I’ll buy the coffee! But don’t forget — don’t apologize for the fact; be proud of the fact — that you as an American can nevertheless delight in the gifts and heritage of the culture that you come from, just as I do mine. Maybe we can even bless each other with some gifts from our cultures.
For example, have you ever had Dutch Letters?
• Rev. Roger Dykstra is senior pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org