Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Oh say

Eric has a good discussion of the Star Spangled Banner flap over at There’s a pattern here to see. Go read it and maybe make a comment.

I was struck by Bush’s statement “I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English, and they ought to learn to sing the National Anthem in English.” Learning English, like in the discussion of Official English, seems to be the heart of the matter. It’s odd though that the issue is always framed as something THEY have to do: “immigrants ought to learn English.” It’s never discussed as something WE need to do: “We ought to teach immigrants English.” The assumption is of course that the opportunities are there and it’s a failure by the immigrants to take advantage of those opportunities. It’s not a failure to provide opportunities on our part.

I tend to relate to this issue through the lens of my own pseudo-immigrant experience: when I was 17 I went to Sweden for 9 months as an exchange student. I lived with a nice family in an upscale suburb of Gothenburg and went to Hvitfeldska gymnasiet (at the time a quiet school, but later the scene of anti-globalization riots). After about 4 months in the country I was speaking pretty fluent Swedish. And I still speak it 20 some years later. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case with all of the Americans who went over that year. So why was I special?

It could be that I’m just good at languages—I did, after all, become a linguist later. I’m not too convinced by that. I took German and French in school and I’m pretty sure none of it stuck. Instead, I think there are two major reasons; I wanted to speak Swedish and I had the opportunity to speak it all the time. For example, the family I stayed with didn’t speak English with me even much though some of them could have. And my classmates didn’t speak English with me either, mostly because they were embarrassed I think.

What I take from that is that learning a language is a social task. You can’t just sit and read grammar books or listen to tapes. You have to talk to people. And you have to do it a lot. So if Bush and people like him are serious about immigrants learning English, they need to recognize this. They need to see that immigrants spend time with English-speaking Americans beyond mowing their lawns, pumping their gas, or cleaning their offices.


Eric said...

I agree that the social aspect of learning a language -- for which there is all kinds of evidence (not just anecdotal) and which I think most folks would accept as common sense -- is not taken seriously enough -- by anyone.

Sure some efforts are made by language educators to try to simulate the effects of language socialization, but I wonder how successful those efforts are. Some seem to think that emphasizing some cultural aspects of the prototypical speakers of the language is most helpful -- but does talking about toros, tangos, or tacos help you learn Spanish any better?

(When I took Spanish for Spanish speakers courses as an undergrad, I thought the instructors were under the bizarre impression that talking about Central American politics would help us better develop our Spanish grammar skills, but then I realized they were basically just trying to slip their leftist politics into the discussion. Not that I disagreed, but I was a little annoyed that they were using the language class as a vehicle for this.)

I've been thinking lately that all college students should be obligated to take at least half a year abroad, preferably to a country where they don't speak any English (and where the experience would be more like yours, where nobody spoke English with you). Virtually everyone says that study abroad was the best and most educational college experience they had, and I don't think they're just talking about how much partying they did (though that doesn't hurt).

If putting this plan into action would be too expensive or something, then I'd advocate a scaled-down version: you either have to go abroad or you have to go to a completely different (culturally-speaking) part of the country. That may not do anything for you language-wise, but at least you'll have a different cultural experience that you might not otherwise have.

Eric said...

Whoops, forgot to add (to an already overly-long comment) that we shouldn't forget the most effective way to learn a language: for love (or lust, whatever).

Sharon Baron said...

I agree, Ed, that immersion in a sink or swim environment is a great way to learn any language. I saw it often whenever an immigrant child joined my heavily overcrowed 60's Catholic school classrooms. Italian speakers were speaking understandable English in a matter of months. With no ESL program, remedial classes or literally ANY attention from the frayed teachers.

But we are primarily talking about adult immigrants being challenged to learn English, not so much their school aged kids (or affluent American college students). There is really not much social pressure for adult immigrants to learn English when they are immersed in neighborhoods of folks from similar cultures.

jay lassiter said...

A lively debate...let me add my 2cents...
i happen to speak a few foreign tongues. the best edge i could ever have.

In my opinion, imigrants should learn english for the same reasons i think we should learn spanish (or mandarin or german.)
People who are multi-lingual are just plain smarter. who wouldn't want that edge?

AJ said...

I agree, you have to want to learn a language - for whatever reason; and someone needs to want you to succeed.

I studied French in high school for 2 years and a semester in college mostly because I didnt like German or Spanish. A lot stuck, but when I went to Italy I wanted and NEEDED to learn how to speak Italian - and pretty quickly at that. So I tried really hard, memorizing the phrase I would need while standing in line to buy food, or a train ticket. Pumping Turk for the correct pronunciation as we stood there. People who I spoke with knew immediately I didnt know the language very well, but were happy I tried their language first before asking if they spoke English. In one instance a store owner who didnt speak English to tourists intervened (in English) when I didnt have any luck trying to order something from his assistant in Italian. After a short time I could navigate pretty well whatever conversation I needed.

There needs to be effort on both sides to make it work. I have to wonder if half the people who want immigrants to learn English first really want them to succeed, or are just picking a convenient and arguable reason to call for their deportation.

liberal elite said...

Hey Sharon! I agree that having immigrants in isolated communities is a barrier to immersion learning. But as AJ said, both English speakers and non-English speakers need to come together. I think in general immigrants have strong economic reasons to want to learn English, even if the social pressure is not so strong.

I like Eric's idea of cultural exchange, but why limit it to college students? You could probably do local meetups for people to get together and learn from each other.

Philadaddy said...

I'm not sure I agree with the idea that immigrants ought to learn English. It goes against my ideas about what a pluralist democracy should be. I think the motivation for Bush et al is the hatred of people who are not like them.

liberal elite said...

I'm not sure I agree with the idea that immigrants ought to learn English. It goes against my ideas about what a pluralist democracy should be.

Personally, I could give a rats ass if people learn English or not. But there are good economic reasons to do so. And that is the stated reason for Bush et al. So I was going under the presumption that they actually mean what they say. Not that I believe 1) what they say or 2) that they mean what they say.

RadioZero said...

"Language is a virus" -- William Burroughs.

Hang around long enough and it will infect you.

As for total immersion, my own experience with my 2 1/2-year-old tells me that theory is absolutely valid -- add a liberal dash of reading out loud for at least 45 mins. per night.

Dr. Keer -- what did Noam Chomsky have to say abou tlangugae acquisition?

liberal elite said...

Dr. Keer -- what did Noam Chomsky have to say abou tlangugae acquisition?
What he has to say is all about children learning a language. We're talking about adult learners here. Anyway, the main point is that it takes two to tango. You want immigrants to learn English? Then you'd better start talking to them.

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