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Posts Tagged ‘United States’

I think the title of this post is somewhat ironic, because the majority of nations throughout the world are multilingual, and the US’s predominant monolingualism and angst over establishing English as the official language is truly a peculiarity of our country.  I don’t think parents in Africa are saying to themselves, how do I encourage my child to be bilingual?  Most people around the world grow up bi- or multilingual by default, but even parents raising children in a multilingual country can worry that their child will learn and retain a minority language that is not common in their country.  By “minority language,” I mean the language not commonly spoken in the country or taught in school.  So for instance, in my marriage English would be the majority language because I live in the US, and Spanish (my husband’s native language) would be the minority language because it is not taught to young school children or spoken in most situations.

My background is in sociolinguistics, so I had actually done some reading and studying on this topic before even becoming pregnant, but it’s obviously gained a new saliency for me.  I’ve started collecting books on this topic again, mostly because while I had learned about child language acquisition and bilingualism in grad school, no one had ever taught me about biliteracy.  I realized I had no idea how to raise a child that is not only verbally proficient but also able to read and write in another language.

Currently, it’s become trendy to support the “one parent one language” model, in which each parent speaks exclusively in one of the two languages you are trying to teach your child.  It’s thought it will make it easier for children to learn to separate the languages.  However, this method shows less success if the parent who works the most (often the father) is the speaker of the minority language and thus not available as often to provide as much input in that language. (That would be our family situation.)

It’s common for researchers to suggest that you have a regular “system” set up for when you speak the language with rules, such that perhaps you always speak the minority language at home but switch to the majority language in public, or perhaps even in public you always use the minority language.  Maybe the parents use the majority language with each other, one parents use the minority language with the child, and the other parent uses the majority language with the child.  Their emphasis is on these interactions being rule-governed.

I tend to think this theory is crap.  My husband and I don’t have a rigid system for what language we speak with each other.  We both speak both English and Spanish very fluently, and while there are certain situations when we tend to use one language rather than another, the majority of our conversations are characterized by code-switching (switching back and forth between languages within the same conversation, or even the same sentence).

I definitely want my husband to speak in Spanish to our daughter (and he plans to) so we can maximize the amount of native speaker input that she has in the minority language.  However, I don’t think it will hurt our daughter if I speak to her in a combination of English and Spanish, or if her dad uses English sometimes when he talks to her.  Children who grow up in multilingual countries sort those languages out into distinct languages that are appropriate to use in certain contexts, and I believe that she will be able to do the same.  After all, she will interact with her monolingual grandparents on both sides.  She will probably go to day-care with my mother-in-law, where Spanish will be the appropriate language, and to preschool, where English will be the appropriate language.  These will be opportunities for her to learn how to speak in only one language with certain people, and I don’t think we need to start enforcing that at home before she’s even in school.

My greatest worry is not that she will be confused, but that some day she will decide that because her friends don’t speak Spanish, she doesn’t want to either.

 

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I read an article today in Oprah magazine by Allison Glock from February called “Hiding in Plain Sight” that made me break down and cry.  It had the most succinct and poignant summation of why people are willing to risk their lives and break our laws to live in the US:

“For immigrants, heaven is minimum wage.  Heaven is clean water.  Heaven is an end to the constant threat of violence….the heaven bar is pretty darn low, which is why so many immigrants embrace the thankless jobs most native-born Americans refuse to consider.  If you can find paradise working in a meatpacking plant or emptying bedpans, imagine what your hell must have looked like.  Now imagine raising your children there.  What would you do to escape?  What wouldn’t you do?”

Seriously.  What wouldn’t you do?

Water bottles left in the Arizon desert

That’s a picture of water bottles left by activists for those who cross the border in Arizona.  The Border Patrol empties those water bottles into the dirt when they find them.

In 2009 alone, the Border Patrol deported the members of 869 families separately, which means that parents were split up from their children.  Almost 200 teenagers and 94 children were “repatriated” after dark, which means they were dropped off alone at night, in areas where they probably knew no one.  Some of these children had been in the US for almost their entire lives and did not speak Spanish.  Between January and June of 2011, the Obama administration deported more than 46,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens.  Some of those children were sent to foster care.

Why don’t these immigrants just fill out their forms and wait in line?  By one estimate, it would take some Mexicans 131 years to get to the front of the line.  I’ve said it before, but this bears repeating: the majority of illegal immigrant workers pay property and sales tax; they pay social security and other payroll taxes.  Studies like those done by the Pew Hispanic Research Center in 2006 have found no relationship between the employment rate of native-born Americans and the number of immigrants living among them.

So many illegal immigrants in this country hide in plain sight, going about their lives quietly despite the unrelenting worry they live with every day.  As Glock says, “To live the life of an undocumented immigrant is to master the art of compartmentalization.  You go to work, you grocery shop, you take your child to soccer. You carpool and pick up batteries and forget to buy milk.  You do exactly what every other American family is doing.  Only you do it in a fog of fear.”

I remember that fear.  Now that it’s been almost 8 months since my husband was granted a green card, sometimes I forget what it was like to live like that, and then I read something like this article and it’s like being punched in the stomach.  I remember the panic and the desperation suddenly, the tension that you hide from other people and the way it never stops.  I’d like to leave you with a visual of the lengths these people will go to in order to come to this country:

Crosses representing those who die trying to cross in the US

What did I do to deserve being born here?

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Many people have forgotten about the draconian anti-immirgrant laws in Arizon that prompted so much controversy last year.  As a nation, we should not be so quick to move on from these injustices.  It’s important that we remember them and witness their impact on the those with no voice here in the US.  Since the laws that were initially passed in Arizona, several states have passed similar measure.  Arizon’a legislation came out when my husband was still in this country illegally.

Driving to work and listening to NPR one morning, I heard a story that made me pull the car over and cry.  It was about the fear that many illegal immigrants in Arizon felt knowing that the police were required to determine their legal residency even during a routine traffic stop.  Many immigrants were packing up and leaving the state.  One woman interviewed reported that she had given away the majority of her possessions because, “If we were going to have a lot of luggage in our car, it was going to look like we were escaping from Arizona,” which would make them suspicious to police.  She took her 18 year old son, 16 year old daughter, and 6 year old son to Colorada.  The drive to Denver took 19 hours and she was afraid to stop, so she put a disposable diaper on her youngest son.

When I got to work and people asked me why I had been crying, I said my allergies were acting up.  I don’t have allergies, but it didn’t feel safe to talk about these immigration laws.  I was worried I would somehow reveal something about my husband’s immigration status by appearing too upset.  Maybe I would blurt something out in a moment of fury. The type of fear that would cause a family to get rid of most of their possessions overnight and flee a state without even stopping to take bathroom breaks should not exist in the US.  I love this country, but when I read about states like Arizona and Georgia and Virginia, I don’t even recognize this country.  It’s sad to me how quickly we’ve moved on as a nation to other issues.

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I read an article recently about Pat Conroy, one of my favorite depressed Southern authors.  I jotted down this quote he gave about growing up as a child in a military household: “We spent our entire childhoods in the service of our country, and no one even knew we were there.”

My father was a Marine, so I moved a lot as a child.  I was perpetually the “new kid” so I had to learn to land on my feet again and again and again.  I mastered how to quickly assess the dynamics in a room – who has power?  Who is a pariah?  Who should be avoided and who needs to be befriended?  I became good at making friends, although not very adept at staying in touch with them for the long haul.  There was a rhythm to our lives that involved moving in May and starting a new school in September.  Except when we had to move and start a new school in October or April during the middle of a school year.

I don’t like it when people ask me where I’m from.  I’m not from anywhere.  I don’t like it when people say it must have been “such a great experience” to see so much of the world as a child and I must be so “outgoing.”  That’s like saying that being poor must have really taught you to be resourceful about finding enough to eat – what a blessing!

The Marine Corps was the source of a lot of tension in my family, and my nomadic childhood was just collateral damage.  My parents made choices for me that I would not have made for myself.  They volunteered me to make sacrifices that I would not require of my own  children.  For instance, I would not ask my children to attend 6 different schools in 4 years in a row during middle school, which everyone knows is like Lord of the Flies under the best of circumstances.

My brother joined the Marine Corps when I was in college during the war in Iraq.  I had known about the sacrifices that powerless children make when their parents serve their country.  During those years I learned about the sacrifices that adults make when their loved ones go to war.  I learned about a different kind of helplessness, and that love can hold you hostage to the choices another person makes every bit as much as childhood does.  Being an adult is still better.

I don’t know what it is to be a Marine, but I see those invisible children who have been drafted into serving their country, and I won’t do that to my children.

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I just read the best article on immigration and the welfare state: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/02/griswold_on_imm.html.

The point that immigrants work hard and contribute to our economy absolutely resonates with the illegal immigrants that I know personally:  The typical foreign-born adult resident of the United States today is more likely to participate in the work force than the typical native-born American. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2011), the labor-force participation rate of the foreign-born in 2010 was 67.9 percent, compared to the native-born rate of 64.1 percent. The gap was especially high among men. The labor-force participation rate of foreign-born men in 2010 was 80.1 percent, a full 10 percentage points higher than the rate among native-born men.  Labor-force participation rates were highest of all among unauthorized male immigrants in the United States. According to estimates by Jeffrey Passell (2006) of the Pew Hispanic Center*, 94 percent of illegal immigrant men were in the labor force in the mid-2000s.

Also, a higher proportion of immigrants is not actually associated with larger welfare expenditures:  The 10 states with the largest percentage increase in foreign-born population between 2000 and 2009 spent far less on public assistance per capita in 2009 compared to the 10 states with the slowest-growing foreign-born populations–$35 vs. $166 (see Table 1). In the 10 states with the lowest per capita spending on public assistance, the immigrant population grew 31 percent between 2000 and 2009; in the 10 states with the highest per capita spending on public assistance, the foreign-born population grew 13 percent (U.S.
Census 2011, NASBO 2010: 33).

My husband was in the US illegally for 10 years before his status was “adjusted” and he received a green card.  In that time, he paid taxes using a tax ID number consistently.  Many people believe that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes, but in fact if they want to have their status adjusted in the future they need to prove that they paid taxes consistently for years.  Other people believe that illegal immigrants cannot pay taxes, but the IRS will issue a tax ID number to anyone without them needing to prove legal residency. Once the person files their taxes with this number, the social security administration sends them a letter saying, “We don’t have this number on record and cannot apply the earnings that you made to your social security account….”    There is no follow-up to these letters because it is understood that the IRS has given someone without a social security number a way to pay their taxes and that this revenue is good for the government.  These social security earnings are paid by an immigrant who may never be able to claim them when they retire if their status is not adjusted, and the immigrants do it anyway on the chance that someday they may be able to live here legally.

During the years that my husband was in this country illegally, he built a business that employed several people during the economic downturn.  Not only did he provide full-time employment to other people who do contracting, but he also purchased materials and gave work to other small business that were involved in the jobs that he completed.   He mentored other young men who came to America seeking to better their fortunes.  He taught them skills so they could become contractors, walked them through the process of getting a tax ID number, and introduced them to clients.  His community has strong social ties that help keep people off of welfare and that support young people until they learn a skill and can stand on their own two feet.  His efforts to guide these young men are not unique since his culture values family and community so strongly.

The people I know that are here illegally are some of the hardest working people that I know.  They make their communities a better place to live by providing job opportunities and mentoring those who are less fortunate.  They don’t turn to welfare to get by – many of them are not even eligible to receive welfare.  They contribute to our economy and they pay taxes!

*I would love to work for the Pew Hispanic Center.  Love, love, love.

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I’ve been reading a very interesting book called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty without Hurting the Poor that is about how our efforts to help the poor often make situations worse rather than helping them to escape poverty.  This book focuses on the debilitating impact of many short term mission trips that churches undertake and many ministries that churches provide to the poor, as well as misconceptions about what it is to be poor and what causes poverty.

Reading this book is causing me to re-think many beliefs that I’ve never questioned.  For instance, if a homeless person on the street asks me for money, almost 100% of the time I give them something.  I do this because several verses in the bible make it clear that we should share with those who don’t have much when we do have enough, like:

1 John 3:7 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

Matthew 5:42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Proberbs 3:28  Do not say to your neighbor,
   “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
   when you already have it with you.

There are a lot more verses like this in the bible and a lot of people will immediately ask if I’ve also literally sold all my possession and given them to the needy as Jesus mentions in Luke 12:33.  I have not, but I think it’s a very common condition (affliction?) for Christians to pick and choose which bible verses they will interpret literally and which were dependent on the context or perhaps mistranslated over time.

I believe when I die that I will see Jesus and we will talk about my life.  I want him to say that I did a good job, and I don’t want to have to answer to him for the times that I turned away from someone in need.  When my friends argue that these homeless people are just going to buy drugs or alcohol, I always comment that if I were homeless I might want to do that, and that it’s really not my business what they buy with it.  It’s only my business whether I turned away from someone who was hungry, and ultimately I’ll answer for that someday.

This book is making me think about whether my responsibility to the poor involves something different than giving them cash and turning away when they may be stuck in situations where money isn’t really what they need.  As Americans, we often throw money at problems we don’t understand.  I’m not sure yet how my interactions with the homeless are going to change, and in the meantime I am still giving them cash, but I’ll update you when I finish the book.

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I got an interesting comment from CM in response to my post on linguistic prejudice, below:

I think you’ve left out the fact that your native dialect of English is virtually identical with Standard English, so you’re approaching this problem as an outsider. Also, we correct kids behavior all the time based on our fear that others will judge them. I bet you don’t think twice about telling him to stand up straight or stop slouching. What if there were a community of people that identified as slouchers? And they had an army and a flag? Just like there’s nothing inherently special about Standard English, why assume that there’s something inherently special in Spanish-English or Peruvian Spanish?

I think kids his age are a little young to explain the “why” of what’s going on. Maybe you should continue to correct his English and when he becomes a teenager explain why Standard English is no more special than the language he speaks at home. At the end of the day it’s going to be up to him what language he uses at work, just like it’ll be up to him how he combs his hair or what clothes he wears in public (I notice your conscience doesn’t bother you when he wears American clothes in public instead of traditional Andean village attire).

Yes, my native dialect of English is very close to Standard, but there are several changes I make to conform to “professional” English.  I avoid ending sentences with an upward lilt because it sounds uncertain (to men?)  in the workplace.  I avoid using the word “just” or exclamation points in emails or other language that downplays my position as an authority figure.  I don’t use terminology that would identify me as young for a project manager like “sweet.”  I make several conscious changes to my natural variety (young and female) to sound more “professional” (middle-aged and male).

Additionally, my brother-in-law wouldn’t naturally wear Andean garb, but he does naturally speak a variety of Spanish-influenced English.  I’m not going to force him to be more traditionally Peruvian than he is, but there is a sense in which I am standardizing his dialect in opposition to his Peruvian heritage.  I like your point about the community of slouchers.  My background in linguistics makes me sensitive to linguistic hegemony, when in truth we crush children’s eccentricities all the time in an effort to make them more acceptable to society and more likely to succeed.   This seems more benign to me when they are behaviors that are not associated with a cultural identity, but you are correct that a cultural identity is just a set of behaviors backed up by a flag.

It is true that there isn’t much utility in talking about this issue with him now, particularly since he is bored by discussing language and the languages he speaks.  I think the most important thing is for me to refrain from poisoning his brain with ideas like, “People will think he’s poor!”  Hopefully later on we can have the meta discussion about language and the beauty of variety, and in the meantime I can refrain from filling his brain with ideas about language as a marker of socioeconomic position.

At the core of this issue is the notion that I don’t think any variety of language is superior to another and that we should not have to suppress our natural variety to succeed.  Despite believing this to be right and true and knowing that change will not happen until people are willing to speak in different varieties at work, I choose not to do so.  I also choose to standardize my brother-in-law’s dialect.  Apparently I think linguistic tolerance is an excellent idea, but not one that I’m willing to sacrifice for in order to make it a reality.

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