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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    Anna Hsu, 5 (second from r.) mimics teacher Kennis Wong as children sing a Chinese song at Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles, one of two English- Mandarin immersion programs.
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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.

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.

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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.

"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."

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."

Parents like me still think there's a way to retain language in the US despite the odds.

Anthony Henriquez, 8, and his brother Jason, 5, sit at the dinner table in their Fremont, Calif., home doing homework. The conversation is a mixture of Spanish and English. Doli Henriquez, the boys' mother, says she's proud that her kids speak Spanish well and do so without pressure. Anthony plops on the couch next to his mother and says he thinks in English but dreams in Spanish. "I feel comfortable in both languages and no one ever makes fun when I speak it at school. But it's the best when we go back to El Salvador," he says of the trips the family makes.

For the immigrants whose countries are not at war and who can afford it, frequent trips to their native land can be the answer. But it doesn't seem wise to return with my daughters to a war zone like Afghanistan.

I call a friend in Chicago, Shahir Ahang, another Afghan-American and the only one of my generation I know in the US whose children, Emad, 9, and Zaki, 6, retain Farsi.

"From the day they were born, I have always told them when you're at home, you have to speak Farsi," Mr. Ahang says. "When they say something in English, we don't answer them back. They hear five to 10 times a day, 'Say it in Farsi.' When they don't know a word, they ask."

Ahang says their friends call the couple "the language police," but he and his wife are making their children's lives difficult now so that they can communicate better in the future. He says language retention was a matter of preserving cultural identity at first, but now it's the usefulness of knowing more than one language that drives the couple.

Language-immersion schools grow

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the rise of the Asian population has been accompanied by an increase in language-immersion schools. Zhenxi Dai and Yunfang Qian began their Chinese school from their home in 1998 with 10 to 20 students. They now have up to 100 students of Chinese descent enrolled.

Hieu Ta and Cindy Huang-Ta's children, Chloe, 8, and Alex, 6, were learning Mandarin in Ms. Qian's school before the family moved to Los Gatos, Calif. Ms. Huang-Ta has spoken to her children in Mandarin since they were born. Their first words were in Chinese, but as they get older, English is becoming more prominent. The couple researched more than a dozen Chinese schools before choosing Qian's, but their move to Los Gatos three months ago, where there are no daily Chinese schools, has distanced the kids further from Mandarin.

"It's a total struggle. We got a lot of advice from a lot of different people, and the vast majority said [teaching a second language] does not work," says Huang-Ta, a software engineer.

Their friends told them the best way for the children to retain Chinese is to live in China, and the couple may do that someday. But for now, Chloe and Alex go to a weekly Chinese school 10 minutes away.

As for my own family, we're going to follow Ahang's advice and continue to be the Farsi police.

One recent day in the car, Bonoo picked up a book and began to count the images she saw in Farsi, "Yak, do, se [one, two, three]." I grabbed my camera and pressed the video button. Ten years from now, if she refuses to speak Farsi to me, I can replay it and remember the moment when she could rattle off numbers in her mother tongue.

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