February 3, 2014

Coke, “America the Beautiful,” and the language of diversity

Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” ad, that aired during Sunday night’s Super Bowl, sought to portray ethnic diversity in the U.S. by featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in several languages. The many different kinds of people in the ad – Hispanics, cowboys, Muslims, Jews and Asians – were all implicitly united by their identity as “American.”

But not everyone was happy with Coke’s celebration of diversity in the country. After the ad was aired, Twitter lit up with commentary  under various hashtags (such as #SpeakAmerican) critical of the company. Some commenters found it disrespectful to sing “America the Beautiful” in any language other than English, while others said immigrants need to learn English to live in the United States.

FT_Coke_LanguageSo how linguistically diverse is the United States? Data from the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) show that 21% of Americans age five or older  speak a language other than English at home. Among this group, a majority say they speak English “very well” (58%), and 19% say they speak English “well.” Roughly one-in-seven (15%) of those who speak a language other than English at home say they do not speak English well, and 7% report having no English language skill at all.

Other than English, the language most commonly spoken by Americans is Spanish. ACS data show that 37.6 million Americans age five or older speak Spanish in their home. Other languages, including ones highlighted by the Coke commercial, have a much more limited presence. Chinese is spoken by 2.8 million Americans, Tagalog by 1.7 million Americans and Korean by 1.1 million Americans age five or older.

The eight languages shown in the accompanying chart account for 83% of those Americans who speak a language other than English at home. In all,  there are 381 languages spoken in the U.S. that are counted by the Census Bureau, and detailed information is available for 106 of them.

Topics: Demographics, Internet Activities, Language, Television

  1. Photo of Neha Sahgal

    is a Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

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22 Comments

  1. Dennis2 months ago

    Methinks Coke a Cola presumes far too much. They do not speak for me. I find the song grating my American value system. Far too much divisiveness in all the languages. Does anyone recall the lesson of “The Tower of Babel”. Leave the song alone. If something isn’t broke, stop trying to fix it.

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  2. Dennis2 months ago

    Words have changed their meanings over the years/cultures giving “Brotherhood” a spotted meaning. The Brotherhood of Aryan Justice? The Brotherhood of Islamic revolutionary’s? The Brotherhood of Black Panthers? No. I do not want America the Beautiful to include such divisive evil brotherhoods as these. Keep the song in English. In any other language it sounds specific to that language meaning of brotherhood & not an American value. People come to America to be Americans. If they come to be a hyphenated American & not absorb American values, laws, & mores. They come with hidden agendas & motives. Rather they remain from whence they came.

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  3. Margaret3 months ago

    Beautiful commercial…but Coke causes disease( diabetes, obesity, tooth decay et .) Coke bottles cause pollution. The beauty of our country is not in any way related to Coke. We would all be better off with out it. So let’s love and appreciate each other but leave the Coke behind.

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  4. Bruce3 months ago

    I find myself shaking my head at the irony of all the anger in response to the ad when I recall the very prominent line in the song: “… crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea”. Brotherhood is not restrictive, you know, the Aryan Brotherhood notwithstanding. Also, one of the languages used in the ad was a Native American tongue — more genuinely “American” than those introduced by 17th century newcomers — whose languages included English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese and several others.

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  5. Charles Wm Wells3 months ago

    No matter what is said about Coca-Cola, the ad holds an ideal
    America, an ideal world united in our humanity and accepting
    in of our diversity. From concern with ourself, to concern
    for out country, to concern for the world. Not everyone is
    ready for such a large embrace, but the ad beautifully showed
    a glimpse of what that might look like.

    Reply
  6. Richard R Peters3 months ago

    1. Using twitter as a sampling space for public opinion is just amateur. Twitter accounts can be easily created and a individual troll can run tens if not hundreds of accounts. These twitter controversies typically involve scouring twitter for priors that are then used as a straw person in a template argument such as laid out by Neha above. Can any inferences about US opinion actually be made from cut and pasting a few tweets?

    2. We have reached peak Spanish. Mexican tfr is dwindling. Immigration from Mexico is decreasing drastically. There are even times in the recent years when we have probably lost Mexicans returning to an improving Mexican economy.

    3. I doubt that phenotype is a very reliable indicator of cultural diversity unless one defines culture by phenotype (which is sadly the assumption in mainstream thought).

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  7. IleanaDU3 months ago

    There is absolutely nothing in the coca-cola ad that suggest that these people don’t know English or don’t have to learn English. People are jumping to this conclusion. In any even, the overwhelming majority of immigrants speak English. Everywhere else in the world being able to speak (or sing) in a foreign language (or several) is applauded and celebrated.

    People can speak and sing in more than one language and in the US we frequently have. E.g. Frere Jacques. Guantanamera. What Does the Fox Say, Gundam Style, La Bamba, Macarena, La Vie en Rose, Nina Simone – I put a spell on you, Arrivederci Roma, Volare. English songs, including patriotic songs have been translated into many other languages because people in other countries want to better understand them. There is nothing disrespectful about that.

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  8. Sally Edelstein3 months ago

    Real America is causing a controversy for some real Americans , upset over the recent Coca Cola commercial celebrating American diversity. Their notion of what constitutes America is as dated as the illustrations of “real” Americans that Coke once portrayed in its advertising.These vintage images of small town real America were always color and ethnic free. Take a look wp.me/p2qifI-20Y

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    1. Garis3 months ago

      Agree, and keeping in mind that those ad were only shown in America. I didn’t see that kind of ad in my country.

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    2. Richard R Peters3 months ago

      I think the motivation behind the ad is that Coke is losing market share among certain demographics so it decided to peddle its sugary diabetes causation mechanism to new demographic groups already suffering from obesity, diabetes, etc. at higher than average rates.

      I’m not sure what there is to celebrate other than smart use of big data, statistical analysis and marketing to sell a product that makes people sick.

      Yea! America!

      Reply
  9. Jeff Randel3 months ago

    It is imperative that immigrants learn English. A common language is what binds us together. America will never be a bilingual country because non-Hispanics will never become fluent in Spanish.

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  10. Oma3 months ago

    When did we become so set on being one race? America was founded on immigrants. I applaud Coke for this beautiful song and tribute.

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  11. Bandman3 months ago

    Lynn……sorry, but the song was America, the Beautiful, NOT the national anthem! Perhaps you need some help in determining the song that was sang.

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  12. Lynn3 months ago

    I have to say the singing of a national anthem so-to-speak in several languages seemed rather odd to me. Why is it we don’t stand up for English? What’s wrong with all of us speaking one language in this country? It’s easier to communicate. It’s less expensive. Less complicated.

    I’ve wondered: If I moved to a foreign country and they made it easy for me to continue to speak my native language, might I not take the time and energy to learn theirs?

    As well, I think it’s rather funny that there will be a sign in a store that says BATHROOM/BANO. In other words, we don’t trust someone to have learned THAT word?

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    1. Dani3 months ago

      You do know that “America the Beautiful” is not our national anthem don’t you? The “Star Spangled Banner” is our national anthem.

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    2. Thomas R3 months ago

      “America the Beautiful” isn’t the National Anthem. And though I think it is better for everyone to be able to speak English I don’t personally think singing exclusively in English is important.

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    3. Dollie3 months ago

      Well, I do agree that even I, an immigrant, would have found it odd if the National Anthem of the USA would have been sung in other languages. Fortunately, America The Beautiful is not the national anthem. And like Xan said on here, technically the word America refers to the continent (perhaps even continents, as there is a North and South America). Lastly, it was an accurate representation of the diversity in our country, and how even through it, we can all find common ground in calling ourselves American. It’s beautiful to be able to see a little bit of places from around the world all come together in one land. I agree with you that it is important to learn English simply to make things easier for yourself and others, but at the rate other languages (such as Spanish) are growing in our country, soon it will be a must for all of us to speak more than one language. I loved this ad. I thought it highlighted what makes the United States different than other countries; its acceptance for immigration and how being American (using it as slang for United-Statian) has nothing to do with your skin colour, beliefs, sexual orientation or if you were born here. We’re a country that can say that our culture is one of merging many others together and adding a touch of tolerance and opportunity. How cool is that!

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      1. BDS3 months ago

        A-MEN! Perfectly spoken!

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      2. Garis3 months ago

        +1. Wish this site had a like comment feature on it…

        Reply
    4. Garis3 months ago

      If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
      Nelson Mandela

      Reply
  13. xan3 months ago

    1. “American” is not a language.
    2. The United States does not have an official language.
    3. America is actually a continent, namely filled with Spanish-speaking countries.
    4. The United States was founded as a country of immigrants.
    5. Diversity is what makes American strong.

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    1. wrench3 months ago

      Agreed, but what UNITES us as one people? Certainly not the diversity. Certainly not the various ethnicities and their languages. I happen to believe there are several common denominators that make us a UNITED country and one of those simple denominators is the majority usage of English in our conversations.
      I also believe Mandela was right about speaking to a man’s heart in his language but he was talking about a man in his home country. Our language, simply by popular default, has come to be the English language. That is one of the common denominators that brings our diversity together.
      Having said that, I love each and every one of America’s citizens even if they are still unable to speak English. Do you know how hard it is and how much studying it takes to become an American Citizen; it is not a trivial matter and the pledge taken when they are sworn in as American Citizens is in English and once again for the obvious reason that it UNITES us as one people. God Bless America. I urge you to speak English and to be a part of the UNITED STATES of America.

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