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Thursday, May 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

One nation, one anthem, sung in our common tongue

Special to The Times

Latino immigrants and white liberals correctly sense at least a little xenophobia among some Americans who criticize bilingualism. As an immigrant's child, allow me to suggest that this should not distract us from the goal of championing English as a prerequisite for success in this nation.

At a Los Angeles movie theater recently, the predominantly African-American audience cheered throughout "Akeelah and the Bee," a fairy tale about an 11-year-old black girl who takes command of her life by taking command of the English language. "Akeelah" was released nationwide on the same day that President Bush struck a nerve by dismissing a Spanish-language version of the national anthem. English is on our minds.

I once saw a banner in South Los Angeles complaining, "English = Whites Only." As the child of Pakistani immigrants, I beg to differ. English = Good for Everyone.

My father, from a rural Pakistani village, looks back with minimal regret on not teaching his own children his native Urdu tongue.

"I never wanted my children to be behind other children in any way," he would tell me years later. "I didn't care whether you learned Urdu, but I wanted you to speak perfect English so that you wouldn't be second-class in the classroom compared to the white children."

Sociologists would note that my parents were like many other first-generation immigrants, willing to trade off cultural background for children's welfare. Undocumented Mexican immigrants have for various reasons not made the same trade-off; but for activists to discourage them from doing so is to ignore such families' best long-term interests.

In discussing with my mother the national anthem sung in Spanish, she shook her head. "I don't understand," she said. "In Pakistan, we expect every student to learn English. Why don't we expect everyone to learn English in America?"

Good question.

America is the nation that we immigrants chose to pursue, for the sake of opportunity. Yet, such opportunity only exists if we choose to employ the tools at hand within this country.

"Akeelah" is not the first movie in recent years to celebrate English as the quintessential American tool for success. The 2003 documentary "Spellbound" was, as its title suggests, a spellbinding depiction of several children's efforts to achieve spelling-bee glory. A number of the children were of Indian, Mexican or African ancestry, whose families understood the power of excelling in America's common language. By capturing this, the documentary served as a stirring testament to America's greatness.

The notion of a separate national anthem sung in Spanish, one with altered lyrics about "breaking chains," defeats the whole idea of being one nation. It is an unfortunate new example of what historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who was special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, decried as a "cult of ethnicity," a cult that "belittles unum and glorifies pluribus."

My mother, scoffing at the notion of a Spanish-language national anthem for America, bemoaned Pakistan's potential split into three or four different nations. The Sindhis want to split from the Baluchis, the Baluchis from the Punjabis, and so on. They each have their own language, and they each see no need to remain one nation alongside those who don't speak their language.

This is precisely the manner of Balkanization that Schlesinger cautioned us about in his prescient jeremiad on multiculturalism, "The Disuniting of America."

It is liberalism's noble compulsion to sniff out injustices such as racism and classism. But in this case, it is deeply unhelpful to characterize English as a weapon of the white man. For white and brown alike, English is our friend, not our enemy. And no matter how proudly you sing the national anthem, if you sing it in another language, you are not celebrating national unity.

Rob Asghar is a writer based in Los Angeles. His Web site is www.AmericaBug.Typepad.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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