my first JS byline…

I decided to post the whole column instead – some of you may not enjoy the links. Also, you’ll have to go to the actual paper Journal-Sentinel if you want to see my lovely (not really) photo accompanying the column. Click the comments link at the bottom for the love and hate mail I have received this morning. =)

My mother’s grandparents spoke Lithuanian and Polish at home, and her parents spoke their native languages as well as English interchangeably throughout their lives. They attended a Catholic church on S. 15th St. and W. Lincoln Ave. that held Mass in Latin and led hymns in Polish.

My paternal grandmother’s family emigrated from France to Quebec for the language and cultural identity factor, then moved to Illinois. My great-grandmother spoke French until there was no one left to speak it with, and my father remembers as a child hearing German spoken at his grandfather’s house.

Neither of my baby boomer parents, however, and comparatively few of their peers ever learned a language other than English. Perhaps this situation – the forgetfulness of the older generations, a relative dearth of languages in the United States for a good chunk of the past 75 years, perhaps a dose of Cold War remnant xenophobia – has fueled the movement to officially baptize English the “national language” as part of this year’s immigration reforms.

As a teen, I remember overhearing strangers talk about having to hear people speaking in “foreign” languages in the grocery store, insinuating that the foreigners were using other languages to talk about Americans behind their backs.

Recently, I heard a foreign-born Hispanic woman speaking about her complete shock at some Americans expressing irritation about listening to the “para Español, oprima el numero dos” prompt before proceeding with customer service telephone calls.

The attitude she described did not surprise me, but her shock at this kind of thinking, exposing how petty we Americans can be, certainly embarrassed me.

It seems those who support the move to make English the official national language have forgotten that we are witnessing the arrival of new immigrants whose language abilities are not so different from that of our own great-grandparents a few generations ago.

They have forgotten that their ancestors did not arrive in the U.S. and begin speaking fluent English. They learned on the streets, in jobs and through friends as many immigrants do today, slowly chugging along toward understanding, fluency and acceptance.

Today’s immigrants, from Mexico and other distant lands, understand the need to learn English. A 2006 Pew Research Study shows that Hispanic immigrants believe very strongly that learning English is “very important” to their success in American society and more strongly than other Americans that their children need to learn English to succeed.

I live in a completely different south side than the one my mother grew up in. Catholic churches built by my Polish ancestors are now Spanish-language churches with priests from Mexico.

I bought my house from a Vietnamese family, three blocks away from a large Mexican grocer and a small Asian market. I hear less English in my neighborhood than I do Spanish many days, and I have to admit I love it.

But interacting with young, new immigrants on a regular basis has only reiterated how crucial learning English is. Those immigrants who pick up English quickly will discover a multitude of doors open in this country while those who struggle to learn English or do not make the effort will have difficulty rising above minimum-wage work.

And although English is an important uniting force in a U.S. so disunited, we don’t need to proclaim it as the national language to make that point.

English-language learning has happened naturally throughout the history of American immigration. In the 21st century, when our nation is more diverse ethnically than ever, we should not be making a move that will keep immigrants from feeling like true members of American society, regardless of their language ability.

Neither can we expect first-generation immigrants to forget their native cultures and language. My ancestors did not do this, and if you are a European-descended person, as many of us from Milwaukee are, neither did yours.

See comments I received below…


9 Responses to my first JS byline…

  1. laurafern says:

    RB wrote:

    I am a special education teacher [in Wisconsin]. Special Ed. teachers have the distinction and joy of teaching a variety of subjects. I teach basic math, science, U.S. History and Citizenship, English and social studies (world cultures).

    I wanted you to know that your article has inspired me on a couple of different levels. I have always agreed with your premise that it really is unnecessary to mandate English as an official language. People who want to work and communicate in our system already are aware of the value of knowing the langauge.

    However, some Americans, such as the ones you wrote about, seem to be threatened by foreign language being spoken in their presence and in a totally irrational thought process, assume the speakers are speaking about them, no doubt conspiring against them in some way!

    And, as you pointed out, hearing foreign words is at the very least interesting and at the most beautiful.

    As I prepare for my classes, my lessons are designed to teach about the beauty of our own language (and difficulties in learning it) as well as our own marvelous history and the freedoms and responsibilities of citizenship. And I will be teaching about other cultures rich in their own traditions that we may learn from and enjoy. Your essay has given me food for thought and more inspiration to challenge my students (and their often-times short sighted parents) to not only move toward acceptance of diverse individuals and social themes but to hold them in appreciation for how they enrich our own culture just be being present.

    I’ll leave you with a wonderful event that happened back in 1986. While living in Appleton, a group of us went to the former Soviet Union to court a Russian city as our sister city. One afternoon while walking through a park in Pyatigorsk, we came across two Soviet gentlemen playing chess. Unfortunately, no one in our group spoke enough Russian to communicate meaningfully and the the two gentlemen did not speak English. However, we discovered that three members of our group spoke fluent German as did the two Soviet gentlemen. So right there in a park deep in the Soviet Union, a group of Russians and Americans communicated in German.

    And for twenty minutes, all seemed right in the world.

    (Copied from an e-mail to my Journal-Sentinel response box this morning. Edited slightly to hide identity.)

  2. laurafern says:

    AC said:

    I just wanted to say how much I agree with the points you make in your article in today’s paper. As a Spanish major in college I spent a year in Madrid and recently returned from 27 months in El Salvador with the Peace Corps. Being on both sides of the language issue has made me much more welcoming of other cultures here in the U.S. More people here should be humbled by the experience of having to learn a new language to get by. It will definitely change your perspectives.

    Surprisingly, in my experiences abroad, it was the people of rural El Salvador that were most patient with those who were still learning the language. Most Salvadorans have family in the States and know about the struggle to learn a new language and culture. They, for the most part, were very gracious and helpful. People in Madrid were less so. One would expect that people in developed countries who are exposed to more things would have a greater tolerance for other cultures. It seems, though, that there is still a lot of ignorance that needs to be dealt with.

    One thing that really gets me? When I overhear people mocking someone who speaks English with an accent. I, on the other hand, am impressed because that person speaks another language, something relatively few Americans can say. There’s a little joke I read
    somewhere: What do you call a person who speaks only one language? An American. It’s sad but true.

    I guess I fail to grasp the reasoning behind the proposal to name English the official language. It’s just a way to make us look more closed-minded and waste tax dollars that could better be spent on necessary things (and I’m not talking about the ban on gay marriage or the war in Iraq).

    Also… I love the South Side. It’s like a quick trip back to El Salvador without the fear of
    dysentery! What’s not to love?

    (Copied from an e-mail to my Journal-Sentinel response box this morning.)

  3. laurafern says:

    WO said:

    Those citizens in the border states who are furnishing maps and are helping illegal aliens along the way into this country, even those who are motivated by compassion, do not take into consideration the eventual consequence of their actions which encourages and makes easier, the illegal invasion, and you better believe, the eventual takeover of this country.

    (Over eleven million now and counting by the hundreds of thousands of border crossers every year, and when the high birth rate of the Latino culture is factored in, the white American citizen will be a fading minority.) Many of our misguided legislators, including the Bush administration, are now pushing for legislation to allow them full citizenship. Civil war will quite probably be the eventual result. In that the Hispanics, both legal and illegal, are out-breeding us by three to one, once they get the vote as both the Senate and House are hell bent on granting in one form or another to satisfy the greed of corporate America, they will accomplish their objective.

    I would urge those people to please give the message below their thoughtful consideration. Your children and grandchildren will suffer the consequence in a degraded lifestyle by this invasion, and I am very much afraid it will eventually lead to the downfall of this great nation, and bring this country into a condition no better than the corrupt third world country from which they came. Mexicans are taught in their schools from childhood that the United States stole the Spanish grant states from Mexico and many are determined to get them back. It appears the efforts of President Fox and President Bush are promoting this effort with all of their resources.

    (Wowza! Now this is exactly the sort of attitude I was talking about!)

  4. laurafern says:

    CW said:

    Thank you for the well-written column subtly combating the English-only movement that I fear is gaining steam. While not being offensive to the English-only proponents, your words are understandable and, most likely, enlightening to those who are intimidated by our changing communities. I, also, have lived in a predominantly Mexican-American community for the past four years in Denver, CO, where I taught in Denver Public Schools’ bilingual program.

    Naturally, when I describe what I do to strangers, I am frequently met with “Well, I think they should learn English.” Well, so do I, and I don’t understand what causes them to believe that our most recent immigrants do not intend to learn English. I could go on and on, and have been tossing around serious thoughts of composing a paper to present to these people whenever we meet again, which will probably be sooner than later. Perhaps, your column will serve as inspiration.

    Thanks again, and I hope to read more columns on this subject in the future.

  5. laurafern says:

    For the record, I also received a comment from someone who said he has lived on the south side a long time and that there is no church on 15th and Lincoln. I took that piece of info from my mom and never checked into it. I will drive around there tonight and see what church she might have been talking about. It’s possible it’s not there anymore, but the commenter said he’d worked near 15th and Lincoln during the 60s. Oops.

  6. Yeah, Saints Cyril and Methodius, with masses in English and Polish, is a good block south of 15th & Lincoln. Get your facts straight! 🙂

  7. laurafern says:

    Yeah, after I wrote that post I did look up to see what churches were in that area and saw that St. Cyril and Methodius is at 15th and Hayes – one block south – I felt bad when I first got the message, because the guy actually said: “I find your error surprising. Do your homework and check you facts.” After I realized the church was a block away I was less repentant.

  8. laurafern says:

    John Doe (not kidding, that’s really who it was from) said:

    Let me get this right, we didn’t invite these third world immigrants into U.S. to begin with, they break our laws repeatedly, bankrupt our education and health care systems, expand our inner cities, and according to you we are suppose to accommodate them?

    When my grandparents arrived from Poland and England and Sweden, they didn’t get signs, paperwork, radio, and television in their native language. Enough of kissing the royal behinds of illegal or legal immigrants. Perhaps if we stop kissing their royal behinds, they wouldn’t continue to disturb our peaceful enjoyment of our own country by their invasion.

    Americans are sick and tired of being put upon by these people. The problem is that they came here to colonize and demand, not like my grandparents who assimilated and were deeply grateful, not ingrates.

  9. laurafern says:

    JM said:

    Thank you for writing and sharing your article on the value of language in today’s Journal-Sentinel. There’s something interesting about this discussion on language. You point out that your great-grandparents spoke languages such as Lithuanian, Polish, and German in their homes. They knew the importance of English in the
    United States and so people like them in their generation here picked up English on the street, at work, etc. Now, certainly those who arrived here from Latin America did the same. One thing I have noticed from my experience is that typically those of Latino
    backgrounds are more likely to continue to teach the Spanish language to their children these days. However, I know very many people of Polish and German descent yet they do not speak these languages save for a few words that may mean words like “grandma”, “Good night”, and other short words or phrases. Do you also find in your experiences that those of European extract do not pass on the language to their children in this generation? It seems that Hispanics and Asians in the Milwaukee area share both their ethnic tongue as well as English and can switch between both in conversation with ease. As an instructor of Tae Kwon Do for adults and children in Milwaukee I have witnessed this from my adult students as well as my children students with their parents.

    Of course there will be some families that will discourage a language other than English while in the United States as a means to be more “American.” My great-grandparents, Carlos and Ramona Duran were some of the first Mexicans to settle in the Milwaukee area. They shared Spanish with their children, yet not all of their children passed it on to their children. Therefore I have some cousins that
    can speak both, and others that only speak English. Because my father’s mother did not teach it to him and his siblings(in order to assimilate and also because her husband did not speak Spanish)I did not learn Spanish from the beginning. So I took on Spanish on my own, and now I only speak Spanish to my daughter while my wife speaks English to her. Thus my daughter will be able to understand both tongues while also understanding that there is more than 1 way to communicate. Also, she may learn that because some person’s color or language are different, it doesn’t make them strange but just as I said; different, that’s all! Perhaps when she’s older she will want to learn French, Japanese, or anything else. Hopefully this way she
    will be able to pick up on other languages easier, and this could be an asset to her and other poly-lingual children as they grow up in a multi-cultural business world.

    I took it upon myself before I had children to help some Mexican immigrants on the South Side to learn English because without it one’s world seems to be confined to about 20 or so blocks in one neighborhood where you could survive with only Spanish. However without English there can be problems here, like the time one girl
    called me because she was sent to a medical specialist downtown and couldn’t take a bus there nor set up her appointment because she did not have sufficient English skills at the time. So I helped her with this, but what happens when you don’t have someone there for you in such a situation?!?

    Thank you again for you article. Gracias por su articulo! I hope it meant a lot to it’s readers like it did for me.

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