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…