I’m in the receiving line with my mother at my aunt’s wake. The stifling funeral parlor is crowded with mourners, and I recognize former neighbors from my aunt’s all-Italian neighborhood. My mother tenses as an elderly man approaches, murmurs his condolences, and moves on. She hisses under her breath, and sixty years drop away: “He wouldn’t speak Italian to me on the playground.” I’ve heard the story many times: the eight-year-old immigrant humiliated by being put with five-year-olds until she could learn English; frozen out by her peers who didn’t want to be seen talking to anyone fresh off the boat; having to translate for her parents, who never learned the new tongue. “Why didn’t they learn?” I’d always ask. “They didn’t need to,” she’d explain, “and they were working all the time. It’s the second generation that learns.” As new waves from other countries crossed our borders, she had no patience for bilingual classes and dual-language signs. She had suffered, she had assimilated. They could, too.
My own experience with language chauvinism came in my late teens. Arriving in France for my junior year abroad, I was relieved to meet a French student on my hall who had just returned from a semester in England. After she showed me the kitchen and cooking facilities, she took her leave, saying, “This is the last time I’ll speak to you in English. I don’t want to ruin my accent.” It was, in fact, the last time we spoke. Between her Anglophilia, Charles de Gaulle’s anti-Americanism, and my shyness, it wasn’t hard to figure out why, but that pale imitation of my mother’s experience increased my empathy for immigrants.
This past summer, I came full circle and signed up for an intensive Italian class. We were a diverse crew, from teenagers to a retired Wall Street broker. In a country known for its disdain of other languages, was our little group unusual? We had all studied at least one other language, and, it turned out, we fit the demographics of a Gallup Poll conducted in 2001. Older women (moi) were more likely to speak French; older men, German (the broker), and younger people (all the rest) were more likely to know Spanish. Still, we were hardly typical.
This country obsesses about the need for immigrants to learn English, with less and less help, while only one in five people thinks we need to know other languages. A 2008 study by the Center for Applied Linguistics found that, overall, teaching of foreign languages in U.S. elementary schools went down by 9 percent in a ten-year-period. Rural and lower socioeconomic schools were the most affected. French, German, Japanese, and Russian language learning has declined, and the No Child Left Behind legislation has forced a third of the schools that teach other languages to reallocate their resources to keep up with the English-only testing regime. On the plus side, instruction in Chinese and Arabic is inching up, with 3 p...
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