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The American Stew

It was once very popular in intellectual circles to refer to the United States as a great “melting pot.” Over the centuries and up to the present, however, our country has been more a “stew” than a “melting pot.” In a stew, each of the ingredients is affected by the other ingredients in the pot, but the separate ingredients maintain most of their distinctive flavor.

A striking example of the process is apparent in an area of New York City called “Flushing.” It is heavily populated by Asians — mainly Chinese. Stores carried signs to customers in Chinese — until they were ordered by the city to carry an English version.

But the Chinese-speaking population has a more serious problem. The Chinese in Flushing come from various provinces in China. There are 12 such provinces, and in each of them the spoken language is different. Throughout the millennia of Chinese history, the educated classes spoke a universal Chinese tongue called Mandarin. So here in the 21st century, Chinese in Flushing are taking lessons in Mandarin.

The problem is not peculiar to the Chinese in Flushing. At the very first meeting of the United States Congress, the question arose as to whether the minutes should be taken in both English and German. It was a leading German-speaking member from heavily German-speaking Pennsylvania who called for English as the sole tongue.

One of the most fascinating cases of the American “stew” involved Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America’s greatest theologians. He was raised in the Missouri Synod where the public schools conducted their classes in German. To make his way through institutions of higher education he had to learn English. He did — and how!

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