When first languages are immersed in English

Two powerful influences that cause immigrant children to lose their first language mentioned in a Boston Globe article have been around for a long time: the power of immersion and the power of good manners.

To establish my credentials  on this topic, let me say that I have been thinking about first language loss for a long time, always feeling badly that my grandparents’ did not do more to help their grandchildren keep their language. My father’s father came here from Italy in 1917, so my father was raised in the linguistic twilight that came from listening to the speech of his parents and from the reading and writing he did in school. English won handily, although to this day he can understand and work his way around in Italian. The next generation, mine, grew up trying to grasp words of conversations in which adults switched back and forth and we only understood some of what was being said.

My response to the Globe is that the article does not cover any new ground at all, especially considering the history of Boston. What it does is reflect a much healthier attitude toward the rich mix of languages the city holds, but at the same time, the article misses the opportunity to explain why many older folks resent supporting education in the first languages of the new arrivals: they got no help and would have liked to have been able to keep their parents’ languages, too. The difference in times may be that as a nation operating in a global economy, we need speakers of many languages as an important national resource.

As far as offering ways to support maintenance of these languages, I would like to call on television channel providers, cable and otherwise, to offer non-English and non-Spanish language channels as part of the basic line-ups so viewers can be exposed to and can learn or can preserve skills in these languages in the United States. Every resource helps a little bit in my view.

Regarding the child mentioned in the Globe article who was embarrassed that his parents chatted in Russian: I think the child’s response came from childish naivete, but it also may be an instinctive sense for good manners. Chances are most people around them in the store would have been either English speakers or fluent in some English. I know from listening to a language I didn’t understand for hours at a time as a child, that it left me with a constant sense of uneasiness that I was missing something or being talked about.


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