Of all of the immigrant issues, one of the most volatile is language.Though the United States has no official language, English has somehow come to be accepted as a part of our national identity. U.S. citizens live, learn and work in English.
So when a group of people moves in and speaks another language, and that language begins to appear on signs and commercials, Americans grow nervous – we see it as a threat to our identity and culture.
But what culture is that?
The United States is a culture of immigrants; most of us have at least one great-grandparent who spoke a language other than English.
So why are we so protective of English?
Clearly, the American lack of foreign language skills contributes to this problem. Americans frequently make it to adulthood without having anything beyond rudimentary skills in another language. We are a very isolated country in our world community. We have not been forced into enough contact with other language groups to appreciate the need to learn an additional language.
So due to our lack of education, it comes as a shock to us when we begin seeing signs and hearing words in foreign languages. Will we soon be unable to survive in our native culture? Will the invader have co-opted our cultural products, turning them into tools to alienate the native population (naturally, the irony is that most of us are in no way native to the Americas)?
One sentence thrown around frequently in the immigration debate is, “If they’re going to come to our country, they should learn our language.” But “they” are already learning our language.
When an immigrant family comes to the United States, their children begin learning English at a fairly early age. If they don’t get it by the time they start school, they will be forced to learn it in school. In fact, the education system sometimes works so well that children learn English only and do not develop skills in their native language, to the extent that they often become cut off from the older members of their community.
The people we see here who do not speak English are frequently those who immigrated later in life, at which point, they could not learn English in the natural fashion that young children do. They may eventually learn the language, but they will never speak with natural accents and rarely have the extensive vocabulary of a native speaker.
As a result, children of non-English speakers often have much greater difficulty in English classrooms because they do not have the reinforcement of English-speaking parents. Their parents cannot read to them in English or help them with their homework in English. Thus, these students frequently take longer to learn skills that children of English speakers take for granted.
One of the ways that these students could improve their language-acquisition skills may seem counter-intuitive: Their parents could teach them their native language (e.g. Spanish) and read to them in that language. Learning to think, write and express oneself in any language will help improve these skills in other languages that one knows or is learning. Skills such as reading and writing transfer across languages.
This is why I support the idea of bilingual schooling. There are many forms of two-language schooling, but I think the most beneficial method would have students learning to read and write in two languages at the same time. For example, in an English-Spanish school, not only do Spanish speakers learn English, but English speakers also learn Spanish. By the time students would reach a certain grade, usually a few years after they started schooling, they would be spending half of their time speaking English and half of their time speaking Spanish, regardless of their native languages. Because every student is learning a language, his or her language learning is reinforced by his or her peers.
This format of schooling would simultaneously solve two problems. One, immigrant students would learn English, thus learning to assimilate into the English-speaking American population. And two, Americans would learn to branch out linguistically instead of living up to the one-language-only American stereotype.
In addition, everyone would reap the educational and social benefits of knowing a second language. Learning multiple languages expands the way the brain works. In fact, learning a new language is one suggested way of combatting memory loss from Alzheimer’s.
Finally, there are other nonimmigrant groups within the United States who can benefit from bilingual training. One of these is the deaf, who benefit from simultaneous sign language and English training. Another is Native Americans, who lose a very important part of their cultural identity (and a rich source of linguistic information) when they attend English-language schools that do not allow them to speak in their tribal languages.
Bilingual schools, rather than pander to immigrant groups and contribute to the invasion of Spanish-speaking culture in the United States, can actually help to foster a bilingual identity and facilitate American assimilation, as well as create a culture that is accepting, non-xenophobic and ready for life in a global community.
Opinion editor Stephanie Weaver is an English, philosophy, and French major from Westwood, Kan. This fall she will be teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in St. Joseph, Mo.