Cultural and Linguistic Diversity: A Blessing in Disguise for a New Nation
Updated: Feb 24, 2021
As we navigate various instructional models, we aim to keep our students engaged along the way. A key factor of motivation for learners is relatedness. Relatedness is not just about our connection to one another, but also about helping students feel connected to what they are learning about. Let’s consider how a topic our students are hearing so much about lately, the freedom of speech, relates to the power of skills in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The above First Amendment to the Constitution is perfectly clear. Most people, when asked to explain “Freedom of Speech”, would reply it is a principle that an individual (or group) may express their opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. However, “Freedom of Speech” is not unlimited. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated in 1919, Speech is banned that is dangerous and false and would incite lawless action or riots. For example, one cannot scream “Fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, as the ensuing panic would cause so much harm.
In 1789 and today, it is intended that we have the Right to Listen, Speak, Read, Write and use (acquire) any language.
This was especially on the minds of the framers of the Constitution. They knew that languages and freedom of speech were key to the survival of the newly minted United States. The 13 colonies were a polyglot of languages, religions, and people: English, German, Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish, Polish, Algonquian (Native American), and many more. Nothing in the history of the United States demonstrates strength in diversity more clearly and plainly than the American Revolutionary War of Independence (or, as it is remembered in Great Britain, the American Insurrection). It all depends on your point of view!
Cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity was quickly recognized as a strength and not a weakness.
Great Britain, at the time of the American Revolution, ruled an empire of one-quarter of the globe, with an Army and Navy, by design, twice the size of any other country. Subduing the occasional insurrection or rebellion throughout its global empire was commonplace and effective, often due to other countries encroaching upon its Empire.
The U.S. had no Navy. Its Army consisted of non-military, polyglot immigrants of every nationality, freed and enslaved African-Americans, and native-born men and women. Women were soldiers, but primarily spies and couriers. General Washington stated that women spies and couriers were indispensable and the bravest of his Army. How could the U.S. win a war against such odds?
Great Britain was now to experience an insurrection unlike any in its thousand-year history: an adversary of courageous people of diverse languages, cultures, religions, backgrounds, color, and experiences.
How multilingualism led this conglomerate of diversity into a new nation:
Native Americans convinced Gen. Washington to implement fighting with a smaller force against a larger force using camouflage, ambush, and natural obstacles as opposed to the European method of fighting in long straight slowly marching lines.
Benjamin Franklin, using his knowledge of the French language and culture, convinced France to contribute supplies to the American war effort. At Valley Forge, PA, the tent used by Gen. Washington’s was made in France!
Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a highly-skilled Polish military engineer; Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a German-Prussian General known for training troops; Marquis de LaFayette, a charismatic French military officer, and many others too numerous to mention helped win the war.
800 Native Haitians, des gens de couleurs libres (free men of color), fought side by side with white Continental troops (learn more about this).
After the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War, military academies in Great Britain, such as the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, carefully analyzed how an essentially much weaker nation could defeat a much more powerful nation. This was a lesson well learned, and applied, by Great Britain at the start of WWII, September 1, 1939.
The British were soon to find out if the tactics of equity, multiculturalism, and multilingualism would stop the Nazis, who had conquered all of Europe and were now planning to conquer the island of Great Britain, the only country left standing in their way in Europe and world domination. The situation could not possibly have been more serious and dire.
The power of cultural and linguistic diversity is clear throughout history and in current times. How can you draw connections between linguistic skills, learning, and life for your students?
Leonard J. Shurin, M.Ed. is an ESL Program Specialist and Curriculum and Staff Developer for Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8. Leonard is passionate about language skills and development. He works hard to strengthen language instruction and advocate for language learners.