I grew up on the East Coast with a Mexican father who had immigrated about 10 years before my birth. He was proud of speaking a beautiful language and coming from a rich culture.
We were all supposed to speak Spanish at dinner, and I had to put a nickel into a bowl if I slipped into English. I humored my father reluctantly and, thanks to his patient persistence, I grew up knowing some Spanish.
But it never occurred to me at the time that I should be proud, not ashamed, of being bilingual.
Kids mocked my Spanish nickname, and some of the neighbors’ children weren’t allowed to play with me. People would say, “You don’t look Mexican you speak English so well!” as a compliment. It would be years before I answered proudly, “Yes, I’m bilingual.”
Our dominant culture suffers from a dreary impoverishment that places very little value on knowing any language other than English. In recent years, 23 states have passed “English only” laws. To speak any other language has been made to seem un-American, even unpatriotic.
A passionate debate rages today in many parts of the nation about the merits of bilingual learning. And on Tuesday, voters in California could abolish bilingual education by voting for Proposition 227.
In the heat of the battle, a vital message is rarely heard: There is great merit in knowing two languages, not to mention three or four. People all over the world recognize that reality, but our society seems blind to it. In today’s shrinking world, this proves true in the job market, in business and in getting along in an ever-more complex society.
The “English only” attitude didn’t always prevail. The Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation were written in German, Dutch and French, as well as English. The Constitution was translated into several languages. Between 1839 and 1917, various states used German, French and Spanish for instruction.
But then the tide turned. One reason was anti-German sentiment lingering from World War I. Today, many people see children who speak languages other than English as having a problem to be corrected, not an advantage to be retained.
In fact, studies show the best way to learn a new language is to master the one you already have. That’s the basis for grasping principles of literacy, grammar and other linguistic skills.
We need to shake off the arrogance that says English is the only language worth knowing. Instead, we need to recognize that the languages and cultures brought by immigrant children are gifts, not liabilities.
Two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin and others tried to pass an “English only” law for the new United States. Delegates at the Constitutional Convention resoundingly rejected this move. They said it was not the English language, but a common belief in democracy that bound the colonists together.
We would do well to remember that idea right now.
———— Elizabeth Martinez teaches women’s studies and ethnic studies in the California State University system.