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“Speak American”

News & Features | November 9, 2015

“This is America—learn English.”

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon thing to hear in the United States. Though the US does not have an official language, knowledge of English is an unwritten rule. Immigrants to the US are expected to assimilate into American culture, which means learning English as quickly as possible. For many children, such forced assimilation can come at the cost to their primary ethnic language and thus a central aspect of their connection to a community. On the other hand, motivation for Americans to learn foreign languages is lacking. By deprioritizing languages that are not English, we marginalize the communities to which they are central. It is clear is that we need to have a conversation about language in America.

As a second-generation Iranian-American, I grew up in a predominantly Farsi-speaking household. Farsi was my twin brother’s and my first language. My mother says that my first word was shab bekheir, the Farsi word for “goodnight.” However, upon my brother’s and my entering preschool, teachers told my parents that they needed to begin speaking in English with us in our home. They were worried that, though we spoke English, our English was not as strong as our peer’s. From that day on, my parents adopted English as our household de facto language. Our English skills improved rapidly, and my brother and I entered elementary school with the necessary level of language mastery. This came at the cost, however, of losing our fluency in Farsi as well as much of our cultural connection to Iran. We no longer speak Farsi in our household.

My experience is not an altogether unfamiliar one in the United States. Psychologist Wallace Lambert calls it “subtractive bilingualism”: an individual loses their primary language, or their heritage language, as a result of learning a second language.

In fact, subtractive bilingualism often occurs when children of non-native English speakers attend preschool, as educational and societal pressures tell them that they need to adopt English as their primary language in order to survive. A 1991 Stanford study on subtractive bilingualism in the US found that children who enter school with primary fluency in a language other than English “quickly discover that the key to acceptance is English, and…learn it so they can take part in the social life of the classroom… All too often, English becomes their language of choice long before they know it well enough to express themselves fully in that language, and they use it both in school and at home.” According to the same study, it even occurs in families where the parents speak little to no English and comes at a serious cost to parent-child relationships.

In my family, I was lucky that my parents have a steady understanding of English, so my relationship with my parents was not sacrificed in my efforts to “fit in.” All the same, I remember vividly my brother’s and my attempts to discourage my parents from speaking Farsi in public, for fear of standing out too much. My multicultural and multilingual background made me feel like an outsider in a nation where English is key. Having to deny that multicultural and multilingual background, however, has made me feel alienated from a heritage culture that should feel like home.

The pressure for perceived outsiders in America to learn English is immense. A Pew research study conducted in September 2015 found that 76 percent of Americans believed that adult immigrants must learn English to . Additionally, 59 percent believed that recent immigrants were not learning English fast enough. When immigrants to America are subjected to this “adapt or fail” mentality, the pressure to Americanize is enormous and being “American” inherently means conforming to the normative English-speaking culture. Thus, it is not surprising when a study shows that 25 percent of children who grow up in potentially bilingual households do not become bilingual, implying the frequency with which subtractive bilingualism occurs and leaves children speaking only English.

Many argue that English is the most important language for young people growing up in America to learn. While it is true that English is entrenched in American society and incomparably useful in daily life, other languages have deeply important cultural and personal values.

Furthermore, knowing another language in addition to English has significant developmental advantages. Tufts Child Development Professor Jayanthi Mistry, who studies how children navigate multiple cultural worlds, told the Tufts Observer, “Developing and maintaining dual (or multiple) cultural and bilingual identities is usually associated with positive psycho-social and academic outcomes.” She added, “However, sometimes the process of developing and maintaining bi-cultural identities can be particularly challenging and then the outcomes are not quite so positive. The implications of the research in general are clear: when children and adolescents are supported in the development of bicultural and bilingual identities, these fluid, dynamic identities can be effective strengths and assets that undergird other areas of development.” Learning a language and finding the balance between that language and English can have profound benefits. However, being able to receive those benefits largely

A child who loses a language loses a lot more than a vocabulary—they lose a connection to an entire culture and history, as well as to a sense of identity. It makes sense, then, that bilingual young Americans use their heritage language as a way to get closer to their culture, though they may feel alienated or removed from it. A recent survey of UCLA students found that bilingual college students would like to study their home language at university to discover more about their heritage culture and linguistic roots and to communicate better with relatives. Knowledge of a second language becomes inherently linked to cultural identity and relationships.

This cultural value of languages is largely lost in the English-dominated conversation about languages. American attitudes towards knowing other languages indicate that foreign languages are seen as “nice” but altogether unnecessary. For example, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush is fluent in both English and Spanish. He uses Spanish to connect with his Hispanic supporters, once conducting an entire interview in Spanish on Telemundo. But some of his Republican counterparts saw this negatively. Sarah Palin commented that, while she admired Bush’s bilingualism, “[When] you’re here, let’s speak American.”

“Speaking American” has become more and more important over the past 50 years. Though the nation lacks an official language, 31 states have mandated English as their official language, meaning that all official government business within these states must be conducted in English. Not only does this further establish English’s place as culturally dominant, but it also sends the message that power lies in the English language.

Public school systems can also enforce this message. California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have all approved ballot measures to end bilingual programs and replace them with English-only policies. Such policies often conflate assimilating to American culture with dropping cultural practices altogether. This denies children of immigrants and non-native English speakers the opportunity to maintain and connect with both of their cultures simultaneously. Monolingual education has implications for large numbers of Americans; 12 million school-age children nationwide speak a second language in the home and students of color outnumber non-Hispanic white students in the public school system. It is clear that bilingual education is crucial to creating a comprehensive and inclusive education for all students. The American education system must find a balance between English and heritage languages in order to prevent future cases of subtractive bilingualism and to encourage a multilingual and multicultural community.

A much-needed education policy that has been called for is a Spanish-English bilingual education program. As 8.5 of the aforementioned 12 million school-age children speak Spanish in the home, education programs need to support the growing Hispanic student population. In the past, after the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, these programs focused on improving English and used Spanish to help facilitate English learning, rather than focusing equally upon both languages. A more effective system that has been suggested is one in which a day’s courses are taught in both languages, creating a natural balance and dispelling the need for a separate second language course.

Furthermore, educators are advocating for an education system in which teachers take advantage of the language skills students already have and implement them into their teaching. Though the heritage language may be learned and practiced at home, schools still play a role in cultivating those languages. By responding to the ethnic makeup of the community and offering classes and resources in those languages, schools can naturally promote student bilingualism.

It is important to look at how America’s current environment regarding languages affects native English speakers as well. According to a 2006 study, 25 percent of Americans self-reported speaking a language other than English and only 43 percent of these said they can speak that language “very well.”

The focus on the English language deprioritizes foreign languages in not only American culture but also American education. Whereas European countries require students to begin learning a second language at ages as young as six, there is no nationwide mandate for foreign language education in US. Students often take foreign language courses, but rarely leave these classes with working proficiency. In fact, only seven percent of Americans in the aforementioned study who said they knew a second language “very well” reported learning their second language in school. The motivation to learn a language other than English in a global economy where English is the lingua franca of trade and politics is lacking. Though there are countless benefits to learning a second language, cognitive and cultural alike, English’s status as an “international language” seems to take away the necessity.

When American students do decide to learn a second language, the decision is often an economical one, as students are encouraged to sign up for languages most suited to finding a job. Amelia Friedman, who began the Student Language Exchange nonprofit to encourage college students to learn languages, claimed in an article for The Atlantic that a “language du jour” mentality exists for learning languages in America. Americans respond to political and economic emergencies by learning relevant languages, such as Slavic languages during the Cold War and Middle Eastern languages for the “War on Terror.” However, when the motivation to know a foreign language is reduced to such a superficial reason as being marketable in the job economy, it come at a serious cost to understanding of the depth and culture that the language comes from.

Thus, the nationwide conversation about languages needs to shift from its current “Speaking American” mentality to understanding the importance of fostering many different languages. This problem is seen most clearly when looking at what is lost to the dominance of the English language. The US Department of Education recently issued a report regarding Native Americans in the school system and worked with Native American youth and tribal leaders to come up with a list of recommendations. One recommendation was to support Native American languages for the “preservation and revitalization of Native languages and the worldviews embedded in them.” The possible extinction of these languages has roots in the violent genocide of Native Americans hundreds of years before. The pushing aside of indigenous and foreign languages in the United States works as an extension of imperialism, as English proves dominant and asserts that dominance time and time again.

Rather than encouraging the homogenizing idea of the “American melting pot,” space must be made in American education for the wide number of languages already here. The “adapt or fail” mentality only fails our community insofar that it rejects the possibility of multicultural communities coexisting while all equally American. “Speaking American” should not mean speaking English, but should instead reflect the diverse communities of the nation from which it takes its name.