Bilingual and struggling
A bilingual parent tries to keep a native tongue alive at home, a problem faced by many immigrants.
My daughter Bonoo Zahra, age 3, began preschool in August, and my worst fear about her education in the United States is coming true – English is invading her speech.Skip to next paragraph
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Before she began school, she exclusively spoke Farsi, our native Afghan language, but now she shuts the door to her room and prattles in English with her imaginary friends. She prefers to watch cartoons in English and wants me to read her books in English.
My husband, Naeem, and I decided our language at home would be Farsi so that our two daughters could learn to speak it. They would learn English in school and outside the home. After watching dozens of relatives' and friends' children in the US forget their native language, we are determined to teach Bonoo and Andisha, 5 months, the importance of bilingualism. But it's a battle many second-generation immigrant parents have lost to the pervasiveness of English.
Besides preserving cultural heritage, a second language can boost careers, sharpen analytical skills, and encourage communication with a world outside one's own.
The loss of language is a deep-seated fear among many immigrants. The US has been dubbed the graveyard of languages by some academics for pushing English and excluding other tongues. Currently about 55 million Americans speak a language besides English at home, but by the third generation, the home language tends to atrophy, according to various studies. American society supports a rhetoric of multiculturalism but not multilingualism, experts say.
While many of our parents wanted us to assimilate faster and speak English better, our generation – the 30-somethings – is focused on preservation. In the past few decades, the emergence of identity politics has encouraged ethnic Americans to hold on to more than English.
More 'heritage language' learners
Olga Kagan, director of the Center for World Languages and National Heritage Language Resource Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, says more and more students of ethnic backgrounds want to learn their native language when they enter university. These students are identified as heritage language learners, and UCLA opened the resource center she runs in 2006 to meet that need.
"Now we are more aware of it. In the past, people didn't pay much attention to [learning their native tongue]," Ms. Kagan says.
Unlike Europe, where the younger generation in immigrant communities seems to be more successful at retaining its native tongue, children raised in America tend to only speak fluently in English. The Hispanic community, which represents the majority of bilingual Americans, may speak only English by the third generation. But the influx of new immigrants helps keep Spanish alive in the community.
The authors of the 2006 article "Linguistic Life Expectancies: Immigrant Language Retention in Southern California," in the Population and Development Review journal, contend that Hispanics in the Los Angeles area shift to English between the first and second generations and lose Spanish by the third.
Yet if children in other countries are capable of speaking at least two languages fluently, why can't American children do the same?
The US movement for monolingualism began after World War I when xenophobia developed against Germans in the US and caused many German-language schools to close, according to Lisa García Bedolla, head of the Center for Latino Policy Research at the University of California, Berkeley. Ever since, the presumption is that a patriot should know only English.