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Keeping Immigrant Languages Alive

July 2005
Keeping Immigrant Languages Alive

The struggle to maintain our native tongues in an increasingly homogenous United States


If a person who speaks two languages is called bilingual, what do you call a person who speaks one language?

Answer: American!

So goes a popular joke that's told by language teachers around the nation. And recently, Dennis Baron recounted it in an article while referring to multilingual abilities in the U.S. The one-liner may seem like an amusing exaggeration, but it's not far off the mark. Elaborating on this, Baron, a professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois, wrote: "Although bilingualism may be on the rise (in the States), the children of non-English-speaking immigrants are abandoning their heritage languages, becoming monolingual speakers of English with record speed."

Despite being one of the most diverse nations in the world, the U.S. today remains largely monolingual. The 2000 census showed that over 82 percent of the population spoke only English (around 90 percent in Georgia); and only 9.3 percent were fluent in English and another language. Incidentally, it's immigrants who make up a good portion of the population that does speak other languages. According to a Roper Poll, nearly 50 percent of Americans agree that not enough emphasis is given to foreign languages in the U.S.

An alarming statistic put out by the American Council on Education reveals that college enrollment in foreign language classes actually fell from 16 percent in 1960 to 8 percent in 2002! This seems paradoxical in a country that has simultaneously seen a marked increase in bilingual immigrants. Another Roper Poll, as reported in The Washington Times, shows that 48 percent of Americans have at least weekly dealings with someone whose first language is not English, and the majority of them were between the ages of 18 and 34. Moreover, in an increasingly globalized world, the benefits of multilingual skills cannot be overstated.

As the founder of Wordsmith.org, a popular online service for people who love the English language, Anu Garg moderates discussions with notable linguists and other language enthusiasts. He co-authored the bestseller A Word A Day. However, even an enthusiast like Garg feels that an exclusive focus on English, especially among children, can be shortsighted.

"At a time when the world is becoming smaller, an insular view can be costly in the long run," he told Khabar. "Ideally we should encourage children to learn other languages. We should offer them a number of foreign languages ? not just Spanish or French ? right from their first day at school. The other day I was reading a book to my 8-year-old daughter. It was written by a Canadian author, illustrated by a British artist, typeset in Singapore, and printed in China. And read by Americans! Pick up anything in your neighborhood store and it's easy to see how seamless the world has become."

Jyoti Hanagud shares those sentiments. A graduate student in applied linguistics at Georgia State University, she has taught English as a second language in Atlanta since 1999. Yet, her affinity for the language and involvement with the Intensive English Program at GSU does not prevent her from being a strong advocate of other languages. In fact, she is fluently bilingual. "I am very proficient in Spanish as a result of studying the language and living in Mexico," she said. "I have had jobs in the past that were given to me because I spoke Spanish. Of course, not everyone works in a job where they use languages other than English, but I think having knowledge of another language ? which means knowledge of another culture ? is very important in a world that's becoming so interconnected. I personally believe that it's important for not only South Asian youth but all youth to have an understanding of the interconnectedness of all countries and cultures."

To get a better sense of multilingual abilities in the States, it may help to make comparisons with Europe and, of course, India. As per the European Commission for Education and Culture, 52.7 percent of Europeans speak their native language and another language fluently. In polyglot India, where 18 major languages are identified and defined in the constitution, it's not uncommon for people to speak 3 or even 4 languages, although the degree of fluency can vary greatly. It's also interesting to note that in a populous subcontinent these languages are spoken by very large numbers of people. For instance, in a recent Ethnologue ranking of the world's most widely spoken languages, Hindustani or Hindi-Urdu holds the third position (at 496 million) and Bengali comes seventh (at 215 million).

Amitav Choudhry, head of the Linguistic Research Unit at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, captures this complexity by noting that each of the 418 officially listed languages in India is spoken by 10,000 people or more. "All-India Radio broadcasts in 24 languages and in 146 dialects; newspapers are published in at least 34 languages; 67 languages are used in primary education, and 80 in literacy work," he adds. "The constitution guarantees all citizens the right to ?conserve' their language, and all religious or linguistic minorities have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice."

Given that India is often seen as a continent rather than a country, it can be said that the Indian Union was formed well before the European Union was even conceived, and though the EU's future is uncertain at this stage, the continuity of the IU is a safe bet. At the same time, this immense linguistic diversity, however admirable, can present certain challenges and raise valid questions about national identity and unity.

"While we could all learn as many languages as possible, I am one for ?English only' when it comes to government transactions," says Narender Reddy, a commercial real estate professional who's a leading Republican activist in Georgia. "It makes the process easy if everyone gets the message in the same language. I recall the language-related riots in various parts of India. How can I forget, having seen 15 Indian languages inscribed on its currency? How can I forget, having seen Indian street signs in 3 to 4 languages? Do I want such a scenario repeated here in the U.S.? Certainly not. Also, America being a melting point, it's difficult to give recognition to only a few languages while ignoring the rest." Reddy hastens to add that he actually supports the learning of any language. But as he notes, "If there is a need to learn other languages to conduct our business and social activity, it is our individual responsibility to learn such languages and not at the expense of tax payers."

"The language issue should be approached in a thoughtful manner rather than a sentimental way," argues Dr. Bhagirath Majmudar, a professor of pathology at Emory University's School of Medicine, and one who is also an aficionado of Indian culture and heritage. "By asking children to speak our mother tongue, are you asking them to enter the divided states of India? We should analyze and look for optimal benefits in such a way that it takes away some of the harm that comes from excessive linguistic commitment." Although he learned four languages ? English, Hindi, Gujarati and Sanskrit ? as a student in India, he notes, "My learning of English was the best thing that Indian education did for me. I'm a very proficient citizen of the world because of the knowledge this language has provided." Majmudar, though, points out that American students are increasingly turning to certain foreign languages like Spanish and Mandarin, and he thinks this trend is inevitable in a globalizing world.

But then what about the Indian languages we brought with us to the New World?

Atlantan Shankar Mahadevan makes an intriguing observation in this regard. "It almost seems as if we are not comfortable with ourselves, our accent, our native tongue. I have heard people proudly say, ?My child speaks fluent English but none of our native languages.'" But it seems embarrassing to say it the other way around." Mahadevan, too, picked up four languages in India. "While I was growing up in Bombay, no one taught me to speak English, Hindi or Marathi at home," he says. "In fact, I only knew Tamil until I was five. But, eventually, I learned all these languages. Children living in a bilingual or multilingual environment are capable of learning languages more easily."

"Our native languages are not just languages for communication," asserts Reddy. "They are much more than that. Our native languages are part of our cultural identity."

But Reddy also contends that it's by no means easy to pass on these languages to the second generation. "We did send our children to ?Mana Badi' (Our School), a community-run weekend class. It did help them to learn Telugu for a while. But when they started losing interest in learning, we didn't push them any further." And Reddy is even more skeptical when he thinks about future generations. As he says, "It may be possible in other countries like Africa, but not in the U.S., where our life is fast-paced and we have little time to focus on this issue."���

Generally speaking, for children growing up in India, picking up languages can seem like a natural rite of passage. The multilingual environment makes it possible and, often, they have no choice because a working knowledge of two or three languages is essential if one wants to lead an unrestricted life. But it can happen anywhere, of course, given the right circumstances. Reddy provides a good example. "Even after putting so much effort to teach our children Telugu, my native language, we did not succeed. From my experience, I notice that our children are capable of learning any language, but only when it becomes a necessity. In our case, as much as our children resisted learning Telugu, they learned Hindi very fast when we hired a full-time nanny who could only speak Hindi. Within a few weeks, out of necessity, my children learned to communicate in Hindi. And it helped that they enjoyed watching Hindi movies with her. She left after four years. But, thanks to her, our children still watch Hindi films and speak that language."

However, in mostly monolingual America, the reverse of what happens in India is more common because ? as Baron mentioned ? the children of immigrants tend to neglect their heritage languages. "The way a language works is this: use it or lose it," explains Anu Garg. "I find my Hindi vocabulary diminishing from lack of practice. It's important to make sure that we keep our native languages alive for both the present and future generations. Starting newsletters, magazines or even newspapers in the native languages would help. That might encourage people to read as well as write in their mother tongue. For conversing in our native languages, local clubs could be formed. People in many universities, high schools and communities have clubs for their favorite languages. There's no reason we can't do the same thing for our native languages. Fortunately, there are already some visible efforts. Many websites in native languages offer monthly magazines and blogs."

While Jyoti Hanagud is also a strong proponent of Indian languages, she has a word of caution. "I think it's important not to guilt our youth into preserving their language and culture but to show them through our practice how rich it is while also showing them its usefulness," she says. After pointing out that "parents must be persistent in their attempts to foster bilingualism in their children," Hanagud relates her own experience. "I'm actually biracial with my mother being Caucasian and my father Indian. I did not grow up with the language and do not speak any Indian language fluently. I was exposed to Kannada as a very young child and was very aware of other languages for as long as I can remember. I became very interested in learning about my Indian heritage as I began to study Bharatnatyam at the age of 22. I always had an interest, but I became more motivated at this time. Studying Bharatnatyam opened the doors to parts of the Indian culture that I could not have otherwise learned about. The meaning behind the dances was translated for me and it inspired me to learn more. I learned about history, spirituality and culture through dance."

Admitting that "one should not neglect Indian languages just because they may not be as relevant in this country," Dr. Bhagirath Majmudar also notes, "By doing that children may be walled off from our Indian culture, and because of that they may not be attracted to it." Nevertheless, he thinks parents should tread carefully and not overburden their kids with unrealistic expectations. "Theoretically it's wonderful to speak as many languages as you can. During the formative years of the brain, a child can learn as many languages as you expose them to." However, given the demands placed on students these days, Dr. Majmudar feels a lighter approach to learning Indian languages may work better. For him, a focus on basic conversational ability may be better and more doable than trying to learn grammar, vocabulary and writing. In his view, it's not really necessary to have the knowledge of a language in order to understand the culture. After all, he asks, don't we learn about other cultures without knowing their languages? Even an ability to converse casually would be a big achievement. As he puts it, "Language can be used as a ?visa' that provides visiting rights rather than a ?passport' that guarantees citizenship."

Shankar Mahadevan agrees that a relaxed approach may make learning more enjoyable. "With the advent of Spanish channels, Sun TV, Zee TV, and vernacular scripts on the Internet, there are so many opportunities for young people these days. Even when I was growing up in India, I learned Marathi more by watching TV programs and listening to friends speak. Once I watched a Tamil program here on Sun TV. It was a contest and the participants were required to speak only in Tamil. It was interesting and fun, and the fun part does attract attention and make it popular. As a community, we could arrange similar activities that encourage everyone to speak in a native tongue."

Whatever approach one takes, the conditions for learning languages have never been more favorable. In a shrinking world, where one only has to pick up the remote control or click on a mouse to access other cultures, it has become so much easier to stay in touch with Indian languages. As noted earlier, satellite TV programs from India and elsewhere can be directly beamed into one's living room any hour of the day or night. Apart from the ubiquitous Bollywood films, slickly produced DVDs in regional languages are commonly available. Most importantly, dedicated instructors continue to teach Indian languages around the country. Now that the South Asian community is larger and more diverse, numerous desi groups ? such as Bal Vihar of Atlanta, to give just one example ? offer classes to children and adults. A recent New California Media poll shows that 51 million Americans (a quarter of the adult population) now turn to the ethnic media on a regular basis. One example of this explosive growth is the easy availability of magazines and newspapers in many Indian languages.

Given that childhood is usually the best time to gain linguistic proficiency, can an emphasis on multilingualism retard the learning of a crucial language like English?

"There's no evidence to suggest that exposure to more than one language in childhood impedes learning," says Anu Garg. "In India, especially in the South, it's not unusual to find people speaking three or four languages. You might find that your teenage neighbor speaks Tamil, Telugu, English and Hindi. In Europe, bi- and tri-lingual people are very common. The good thing about the human brain is: the more you use it, the better it becomes. When new neurons are born in our brain, they die out if they don't get exercised. A recent study at the University College of London indicates that learning boosts the brain. So exposing children to multiple languages is recommended. In fact, early age is the best time (and easiest too) to learn a language."

Steven Pinker addressed this issue during a word chat hosted by Garg. As a professor of cognitive science at MIT, Pinker has won renown for The Language Instinct and other books. "There is an urban myth that growing up with many languages is harmful ? apparently some pediatricians are still telling this to their parents," he remarked. "But it's false ? children have no trouble picking up multiple languages. They confuse the vocabularies only occasionally, and the only negative seems to be that their vocabulary in each language grows more slowly than it would if the child was speaking that language alone. That's because there are only so many hours in the day, and every minute spent learning French words is a minute not spent learning English words. But still, the total vocabulary of all languages is far greater, and there are no psychological problems."

The study Garg alluded to found that learning a second language actually builds and alters gray matter in the brain. And it's important to give children an early start because, as the BBC reported, this "plasticity" of the brain allows them to pick up languages quickly and also become more fluent at a young age. In addition, as staff writer Shankar Vedantam pointed out in The Washington Post, psychological tests in India, Canada and Hong Kong showed that even when they're distracted, bilingual volunteers are able to work more effectively than people who speak only one language. One study, he wrote, "hypothesized that the ability to hold two languages in the mind at the same time, without allowing words and grammar from one to slip into the other, might account for the greater control needed to perform well on the Simon task," which is given to assess mental faculties that tend to deteriorate over time. Alex Horsley, executive director of the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education in Atlanta, supports simultaneous teaching in English and a foreign language. Recently, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he also pointed out that students fluent in two languages do consistently better on assessment tests in schools.

English is, without doubt, becoming the lingua franca of a world where, if one includes non-native speakers, perhaps 1.5 billion people know the language, although the degree of fluency does vary widely. English is global in more than one sense because ? apart from being the default language of science, commerce, politics and so on ? it contains words from over 240 languages. A few other languages may be gaining ground but, according to one ethnographer, about half the 5000-6000 languages in existence are not spoken by children. Given that this staggering loss will continue through future generations, how can we preserve our immense linguistic and cultural heritage in this nation?

The promotion of multilingualism may be one answer. Yet, a vocal minority resists it.

Nobody ? least of all immigrants ? would want to neglect English, considering that it's seen as the ticket to success in the land of opportunity. So its preeminent position in the States is unquestionable. Baron has in fact said that, as per the census figures of the last several decades, 95 percent or more of legal residents speak English. Melanie Webb, who maintains a website that supports multilingualism in America, is a graduate student in education at the University of Georgia in Athens. "The majority of native-born immigrants make English their primary language, often giving up use of their mother tongue altogether," she states. "Studies show that no immigrant group has preserved its mother tongue for longer than two or three generations."

Seen in this context, it may be puzzling to learn that (as Webb puts it) "supporters of Official English or English Only legislation are concerned about English losing its dominance in the U.S." What causes this anxiety? David Crystal ? a well-known linguist and author of The Stories of English, which recently attracted much acclaim ? offers an answer. He was responding to a query during another discussion moderated by Garg. Saying that "a common language is the cement that keeps the arch of our democracy in place," the questioner expressed his misgivings about the use of multiple languages.

"I know there is a confrontation on this one in the U.S., probably because the rate of change has been so rapid," Crystal replied. "But there isn't any need for confrontation. Three-quarters of the world's population are naturally bilingual. It's perfectly possible to maintain the role of a standard language as a lingua franca and at the same time maintain local languages ? the standard guarantees intelligibility; the local expresses identity. In my ideal world, everyone would be bilingual, with the two languages being used for different purposes." Then this British expert on the English language went on to note that his mother tongue is actually Welsh.

"I think one of the most fundamental remedies for those who propose English only, be it in public schools or in the work place, is diversity education and embracing difference," says Jyoti Hanagud. "This also relates to issues of power ? who has the power and how diverse, strong cultures might threaten that power. But to get back to the crux of my answer, educating people on cultural differences and facilitating understanding and comfort with cultural diversity are two important ways for dealing with English only proponents. This must be done with great sensitivity to all people involved and in a way that emphasizes the benefits that multiculturalism and bilingualism have for our society."

Happily, though, the majority opinion already seems to favor multilingualism. And there has been much progress in recent years. Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution to designate 2005 as the ?Year of Foreign Language Study'. It made a pointed reference to a 1992 study by the College Entrance Examination Board that found a dramatic increase in verbal SAT scores for students who'd had four or more years of foreign language instruction. The Defense Department, having revised its curriculum, vigorously promotes multilingual proficiency in the armed forces. Junior officers have to learn a foreign language, and general flag officers are required to be fluently bilingual. Additionally, the National Security Act introduced by Congressman Rush Holt offers generous loan incentives ? including waivers ? to undergraduates who major in foreign languages. Some Indian languages, too, are making modest progress in the mainstream. For instance, leading universities in Georgia and training centers like the Language Institute of Atlanta offer classes on a regular basis. A development worth mentioning is the expansion of the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program in this decade. It now gives young college teachers in India the chance to teach Bengali, Hindi, Tamil and Urdu at certain universities in the U.S. for nine to ten months.���

In important ways, Jyoti Hanagud is probably representative of a growing segment of the Indian-American community. Being not only biracial and bilingual but also bicultural, she is firmly committed to both her mother's American heritage and her father's Indian heritage. So her concluding remarks may offer some hopeful news about emerging trends among the increasingly diverse citizens of this country. "When I have children, I plan to give them exposure to our culture and language as long as it does not become something they dread," she says. "I hope to do so through their own interests. If they like art, I'll expose them to Indian art as well as Western art, or if they like sports, I'll expose them to different sports. Unfortunately, living in the U.S. does make it very difficult to maintain certain elements of our culture; but I do think it's possible to keep it alive, perhaps in a new and creative way."

Enjoyed reading Khabar magazine? Subscribe to Khabar and get a full digital copy of this Indian-American community magazine.

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