Date: Tue, 11 Mar 1997 18:39:37 -0500


Subject: Re: Immigrants' learning of English

As a third-generation American, daughter of (typical) second-generation

bilinguals, I used to marvel at the fact that my parents, talking to

each other and to their parents, could keep secrets from me!

Incidentally, when I asked my mother some years ago how it felt to be

bilingual, she looked puzzled and asked me what that meant. (I wasn't

trying to sound hypereducated, but the word was obviously not familiar

to her.) When I explained, she lit up and said of course, she enjoyed

being able to talk in two languages--but it was something she just took

for granted, since almost everyone around her could do the same. But

this doesn't mean she had no difficulty becoming bilingual; when she

spoke Norwegian in school, the monolinguals (and more "assimilated"

bilinguals) laughed at her. A little help never hurts. She did become

fluent in English in time, of course, but her (and my father's) parents

always "talked broken," as she said. Wasn't it Einar Haugen (or

Weinreich?) who modeled the generational process as Ab-AB-aB, with the

AB sometimes extending through two generations but seldom more? How

long a family remains "balanced bilingual AB" depends primarily on the

social isolation and/or cohesiveness of the speech community and only

secondarily on lack of economic opportunity, since low income and

job-limited immigrants feel most keenly the need to get English. They

don't learn English, as Ellen Johnson said, to "show their gratitude,"

and neither did my grandparents; I doubt that any immigrant or migrant

ever does or did. On the other hand, Florida Cubans, as Ellen notes,

learned English quickly, but they also keep Spanish, not because of

class or income but because of their ideological hope of returning to

Cuba someday.

In my "Language in America" course I use an old article by Nathan

Glazer (early 70s? can't put my hand on it right now) on factors

favoring and disfavoring language maintenance by immigrants (with

Fishman recommended too, of course). But for hard data, I always cite

Garland Bills and Hudson-Edwards on language shift in an Albuquerque

barrio. (Garland, can you cite it for us? I can't find this one

either!) In this ten-square block area the pattern of shift, in both

home use and outside use, clearly followed Haugen's model, with or

without "forcing" (I suppose the schools could be said to force English

use, but only in their domain, and they certainly didn't force the

adult first generation to shift). Ironically, while the article set

out to document the loss of ancestral language skills, it also

demonstrated powerfully the lack of a need to "force" the new language

on anyone! The English-only argument that immigrants won't learn

English unless we force them to is really a non-issue.

Beverly Olson Flanigan