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I watched the other day as two boys, aged 4 and 5, played and splashed together in the shallows of the Kings River. Running, jumping, falling into the water and laughing.

A few days later, those same two boys kicked the soccer ball at Jackson School. Neither boy could speak to the other because they did not share a common language. But the non-verbal communication — of children enjoying an outdoor activity — is a universal language.

Those two boys were my 4-year-old grandson, Joaquin, and 5-year-old Henri Boudet, visiting with his family from France.

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Joaquin speaks Spanish and English. Henri speaks French. (His father, Stephane, was a senior in the Selma High Class of 1992 as an exchange student living with our family.)

So there were three languages spoken in our house for a few days last week. And even more could be heard in the crowds during trips to Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks.

Languages do many things. They unite us and divide us. They identify us in manners both friendly and hostile. They communicate knowledge and emotions.

Our “mother tongue” speaks to us most passionately. Nelson Mandela said that best: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

Our home church, Selma First United Methodist, is an example of that. A few years ago we merged Selma’s English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Methodist churches. We now worship bilingually each Sunday, with all readings, hymns and sermons delivered in both English and Spanish. Because we realized that people prefer to worship in their mother tongue, and God favors no particular language.

I know there are folks in America who believe everyone should speak English in our country. I just can’t wrap my brain (or my heart) around that opinion, don’t understand the logic or the intent.

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If you hear someone speaking Spanish, Hmong or Punjabi in public, why should that matter to you? America is the great melting pot; we all came from somewhere. There are Chinese enclaves in America, Yiddish neighborhoods, multiple Asian and Latino communities. There are millions of Americans who speak Arabic, French, German, Russian, Swedish, Tagalog, Hindi, Polish, Urdu, Bantu and several languages of indigenous Americans.

That’s why the United States does not have an official language, even though 30 states have declared English as the official language. (Hawaiian joins English officially in Hawaii and several indigenous languages also are “official” in Alaska.)

English is the primary language in which our governments operate. But federal law requires that government documents such as ballots be offered in other languages when there is a predominance of non-English speakers.

Many of our neighbors in California are multi-lingual, socializing with each other in their native tongue while speaking with the rest of us in English.

And those of you who have traveled overseas no doubt have encountered American expatriates who speak English with each other, and the language of their adopted country when it is necessary.

When I deal with multicultural issues, I often seek insight from my friend Vicki Filgas Trevino, retired Selma High Spanish teacher and a world traveler.

Last week, in a conversation about language, she reminded me of the need to embrace those who do not share our language.

“Languages are the power of international diplomacy,” she said. 

“We are not living in a world of isolation. If we were, there would be only one language. We are a world of multiculturalism. We cannot pretend to be superior nor deaf to the world because we speak only the ‘dominant’ language.”

I couldn’t have said it better — in any language.

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(Longtime Selma resident Ken Robison is a former newspaper reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. Selma Stories runs regularly in The Enterprise.)

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