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Bilingual and struggling

A bilingual parent tries to keep a native tongue alive at home, a problem faced by many immigrants.

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"I think the issue is that we may have a rhetoric of multiculturalism in the US since the civil rights movement, but that does not seem to have been accompanied by an acceptance of multilingualism," Ms. García Bedolla says. "It's made very clear to children that [English is] the politically dominant language for belonging and inclusion. There's a hierarchy of language, a power issue."

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This dominance has been institutionalized in the education system, she says. García Bedolla is the coauthor of the recent report "Classifying California's English Learners," which shows that bilingual kindergartners or bilingual children who go to public school for the first time are categorized as "English deficient." Many students who are proficient in English are wrongly placed in language-development classes. California has 1.6 million English learners, a quarter of the students in its public schools.

The presumption is, "If you speak Spanish [for example], you cannot speak English," García Bedolla says.

Vanessa Velazquez, my daughter Bonoo's preschool teacher, agrees with García Bedolla's assessment of the language hierarchy. Her preschool classes are 75 percent bilingual, she says. The majority speak Spanish but pick up English within a month. School policy says she can talk to Spanish-speaking children in Spanish but must encourage them to speak English in the classroom. She talks to her own children in Spanish inside and outside the home but says she has faced discrimination. A Caucasian customer at a mall told her she should only speak English in the US. "I said, 'It's a free country. I can speak what I want,' " she recalls.

Multilingualism common in Europe

In Europe, discrimination and the impulse to belong are equally present, so why does it seem as if ethnic communities speak more than one tongue? Magnus Marsden, a professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London has been involved with the Afghan British community and says knowing more than one language is typical in London.

"It is a norm rather than exception to speak multiple languages.... But one important thing is that Afghans in the United Kingdom often claim to be able to learn other languages from their own region that they did not know before they came here. There are also organizations that are involved in strengthening other forms of language capacity."

Being multilingual is part of Euro­pean culture, but unlike in the US, it's more difficult to assimilate into the mainstream culture, so immigrants tend to keep to themselves.

Mariam Noorzai is second-generation Afghan British – she was 5 when her family fled Kabul – and she never spoke English at home. Her three children were born in London and are fluent in both English and Farsi. Ms. Noorzai says in a phone interview that her large family has been consistent over the generations with the "Farsi only" rule at home. But another reason for language retention in Britain, she says, is ethnic isolation. "We only interact with our own family. My kids socialize with others only in school."

Mr. Marsden disagrees and says immigrant communities do mingle with mainstream Britain but are still able to retain their native language.

Nushin Arbabzadah, a research scholar at UCLA, studied linguistics in Germany. In Germany, she says, language learning has many dimensions. "For example, third-generation immigrants born in Germany to parents who were themselves born in Germany can grow up not speaking German correctly while being semifluent in their own native tongue. By contrast ... committed and aspirational new arrivals can become fluent in German in a year, sometimes refusing to speak their own language in public out of a sense of shame."

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