'You'd be a nobody if they didn't make you learn English'

I learned my fourth language - English - more self-consciously than I had learned my first language (German), my second language (Flemish), and my third language (French).

As a young child in Nazi-occupied Europe, I had had to learn languages as a matter of survival. But I was nearly 16 by the time I landed in America, more easily embarrassed, more fearful of ridicule, too old to ever acquire the accent of the native.

Arriving without knowledge of English, I nevertheless learned it very fast. So did my friends among the immigrant students in my New York City high school. There were no special classes set up for us, only kind and encouraging teachers willing to make some allowances for a while.

Within a year, I was taking the dreaded New York Regents examinations. I took the foreign language Regents in German and French and received perfect scores that boosted my average in my weaker subjects. I did well in the algebra and geometry exams, which involve little knowledge of English. I got passing grades in English and American history, and 19 months after coming to the United States I managed to graduate high school with honors, several college acceptances in hand.

My parents had a much harder time. For them, English was a mischievous tongue twister which even I could not always understand. Yet they tried, and kept on trying. They wanted to become American citizens and had to know some English to pass the test. They also had to know the rudiments of American history, and something about the way American government operates. I had studied these subjects in school, and by the time I was eligible for citizenship I was well versed in them. But my parents had had little formal schooling in their native Poland and had no framework for relating events in American history to anything else. Nor had their prior experience with authoritarian governments prepared them for understanding the US system of governance. They spent days memorizing facts. I helped by role-playing the naturalization officer, endlessly quizzing them: ''Who was the first president of the United States?'' ''Who makes the laws of the United States?'' ''What is the Constitution?''

My parents answered by rote. Sometimes they got confused, as when questions were posed differently, such as ''Who was George Washington?''

I was not with them when near-disaster struck during testing. In his nervous state, my father could not produce the answers to some of the questions asked. When the examiner realized my father's predicament, he tried to help. He rephrased the questions and gave some broad hints. My father passed, after all.

Once they became citizens, my parents boasted of their achievement, especially to immigrant friends too afraid to apply for naturalization. Like the fish in oft-repeated fishing stories, the difficulty of the test grew with every retelling. My parents registered to vote, followed politics in the foreign language press that was their regular reading, and voted faithfully in primaries and general elections.

Yet in most other ways they were to remain on the fringes of the American mainstream. They lived in immigrant neighborhoods, socialized with immigrant friends. But they expected me to venture forth, to seize the opportunities, to do well in America. I tried to meet their expectations.

My own Americanization proceeded rapidly, far beyond where my parents could follow. After I learned English, I started to speak it at home, and conversation dried up. I had no time for religious observance. I became intolerant of my mother's cooking, which I found unimaginative and heavy.

America had estranged us, as it had generations of immigrant families before us. This was the cost of immigration none of us had taken into account in planning our new life here, and which we paid in tears and pain.

I often think of those early years in the country we adopted, and which so generously adopted us. For today's newcomers, there is bilingual education, and voting ballots in foreign languages, and talk about dropping English as a requirement for citizenship.

I asked my parents, now retired, whether these accommodations would have helped us when we were newcomers. They were offended at the mere suggestion. ''You would be a nobody if they didn't make you learn English right away,'' my mother lectured me, ''and if we didn't have to work hard for our citizenship, would we appreciate it the way we do?''

I reminded my mother that they would have failed the test, were it not for the kindness of the examiner. She then reminded me of my high school teachers, who overlooked my shortcomings those first few months. And then my mother, who had lived as a refugee in a half-dozen countries, told me: ''That's what's so special in America. They want you to learn American ways, but they don't make fun of you when you don't know. They give you a break, and they are willing to help you if you just try.''

Right on, Mom!

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