CHICAGO -- People who care deeply about language are sticklers for precision. But it doesn't take a grammar freak to take offense at the notion that the words "American" and "English" are synonymous.
This is what makes so maddening the viral video that ricocheted across the web last week of a high school English teacher in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, telling students to stop speaking Spanish in class, elaborating that the men and women in the military "are not fighting for your right to speak Spanish. They're fighting for your right to speak American."
And what, exactly, is this mystical language called "American"? Where does one go to learn to speak it? What is its structure? How about its rules and conventions?
It's one thing for someone like Sarah Palin -- a politician capitalizing on a homespun, folksy, uber-patriotism that sells books and garners media attention -- to misidentify the language of the United States as "American."
But it's quite another for a teacher -- an English teacher, for Pete's sake, who, theoretically has an undergraduate degree that required several courses in which the mechanics of the English language were investigated -- to utter such a ridiculous thing.
It is a slip of the tongue that betrays not a desire for students to practice and master a language, but, indeed, to conform to a very narrow notion of what American culture is.
Do not, for a second, think that I'm advocating for students to speak other languages in English-speaking classrooms -- I am not.
In schools with student populations that speak languages other than English -- which is to say, the majority of public and private schools in this country -- it is vitally important for English-speaking students to be respectful of others who may be just learning this country's language or are fluently bilingual and can easily switch between languages.
It is equally important for students who are either bilingual or learning English to stick to it in classroom settings.
For the learners, immersion in English-speaking classrooms is an important mechanism for sharpening new linguistic skills. For the fluently bilingual, there's little upside to speaking in a different language in front of peers and teachers who cannot understand what is being said.
I've seen it time and again: When people hear others speaking in a language not understood by everyone in the vicinity, they often believe that they are being talked about. This puts people on edge. You may think it's silly, but it's human nature.
(And, sadly, the paranoia is often warranted -- so many times I've witnessed people switch into Spanish for the sole purpose of talking smack about someone nearby. And yes, I've even seen Spanish-speaking students bad-mouth a teacher to her face, knowing the teacher would not understand their cutting words.)
As an educator who has led diverse classrooms where students spoke different languages, it was out of respect to all speakers that we agreed to stick to the common language -- but not at all times.
If there was one or more students who truly needed to speak in their native language to, for instance, get a clarification or meet an urgent need, that was acceptable. This is not some ultra-liberal teaching technique -- it's called respecting others' humanity and building trust among the members of a classroom community.
We should all weep for the poor multilingual students who have to withstand classrooms in which the teacher mistakes a language for her own personal notion about the superior culture students must mimic in order to gain her respect.
And pity the monolingual students who have such a poor role model at the helm of their classroom, too. Not only is their teacher a boor, but on top of that, she is blatantly misinforming others about why men and women go into the armed forces.
People who voluntarily join the military and make a promise to defend our country do so for many reasons, such as paying for college or developing discipline. But the reason I've most often heard is: to defend freedom.
Let's hope the students of Cliffside Park are soon free from the tyranny of so-called teachers who can't distinguish between our country's primary language and their own misguided ideas about what it means to be American.