Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Assimilation and "English ONLY"

I got a note the other day from a friend of mine who is a strong advocate of legislated assimilation and "English only" strategies in dealing with our immigrant population. It was followed this evening by another short note in which he said:

"What I don't understand is that our government doesn't help more people born here to achieve this goal. It sometimes appears that more opportunity is presented to people outside the country and funded with our tax dollars. "

I had to respond ... mostly because I don't agree with him but also because he's a very decent person and I think he really cares about the issues we volley back and forth like ping pong balls. Because he takes these things seriously I think I owe it to him to make a serious reply and because we don't agree, I believe it is more to our mutual benefit to make my case as rationally as I can rather than simply dismiss his thoughts out of hand ... and attack him as a person for holding different views.

The following is my rant in response to "opportunities" and legislated assimilation and "English Only" strategies:

I think government should be helping more people to achieve here in this country. Neither party seems to have a good grasp of the concept... though I will say that the concept is more alien to some than to others. The current administration and its allies in the Congress, however, have cut funding to student loan programs and have underfunded "No Child Left Behind" to the extent that virtually all of our children are being left behind. I won't even get into the erosion of our intellectual capital caused by the resistance on the part of some within our society to scientific thought and the scientific process (which demands that all assertions be supported by factual evidence ... a process which is prepared to abandon any theory when evidence presents a more rational course of explanation) - except to say that this group is very happy to embrace that same science they normally reject when they need a cure for a disease , a sharper television set, a smaller cell phone or a faster car. The science that gives them these things which they embrace is the same science and scientific process that outlines some inconvenient issues that need to be addressed - like climate change and its down sides - which are labeled "junk science" without recourse to how that might be the case.

I don't know that more people OUTSIDE (or from outside) the country are "given" more opportunities. Perhaps they make their opportunities from the sweat of their brows. My real estate agent told me today about a client of hers ... a little Chinese lady who cleans houses for a living (her husband is an engineer, by the way). Her hobby is buying homes. It's a hedge against her old age, she says. She's been doing it for 13 years now and owns 10 homes ... all rented out ... all making an income for her. And she cleans homes still ... raised three children, sent them to the better schools in the Tucson area .... they're in college now ... and she still cleans other people's homes. She's buying house number 11. She looks for them on the way to and from cleaning other people's homes. I'm impressed. No one gave her an opportunity. She worked ... and because any work was good work as far as she was concerned ... she always had a job.

My grandfather came to this country without much money .... actually, he had a debt to the people of his village in Poland who pooled their resources so he could make his way here. He worked as a black smith on the rail road, married ... they bought a farm in the nineteen-teens and my grandmother raised chickens, sold eggs, milked the cows, made cheese, hoed berries, potatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, tomatoes and anything else that could be grown and sold at road side stands and to local restaurants or at farmers markets at 5 in the morning. They couldn't read or write. They knew no English ... They raised 8 children because they needed farm labor. My mother, a second generation, straddled both worlds ... the "old" country at home and the "new world" as a cleaning lady and then a secretary .. eventually working her way to several hours short of her doctorate degree in Education. My sense is that the opportunities they were given involved merely finding themselves in a place that had things that needed doing ... and they were willing to do whatever it took to make ends meet and to make a little ahead.

For myself, before you and I ran across each other at that company we both know and love so well, I had Mark Pollack type positions with a couple of record companies. Then I went through a divorce and became a full time single dad who temped at $9/hr. because he couldn't travel any longer. I came to the big "R" as a temp, working for Paul Castello ... the rest, as they say, is history. I've made a lot more - in the days before life on the Ranch - but I like my gig these days and my blood pressure has normalized.

Which reminds me about something that you mentioned in a previous note that I meant to answer ... about making English a "requirement" and people resisting assimilation.

Assimilation is a process that happens over time. It normally takes three generations ... it takes the people who come here, their children who are a transition generation and their grand children who are the assimilated ones.

My family is a good example. Neither set of grand parents (both sets came from Poland, by the way - on my mother's side they were totally illiterate Polish hillbilly's from the Carpathian Mountains - just across the ridge line from Dracula and Transylvania, incidentally. On my father's side, they were both reasonably educated - speaking Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and German with a little Solvak mixed in. My grandfather - on my father's side - was always reading ... reading the newspapers that came to him from relatives in Poland. He was a literate, educated man ... literate and educated in Polish.

Both my father and my mother grew up speaking eastern European languages AND English ... though my father, who did not start speaking English until he was in fifth grade - they moved from the country and the one-room-school-house, farm community where everyone spoke Polish into Frankfurt, just outside Utica, New York. He started Catholic school where everyone spoke English. So, as a kid, he learned another language. To the end he had problems with the "Th" sound in "Thomas" and insisted on pronouncing it like the "th" in "the".

When I was born, I was raised speaking only English. I was not taught Polish or Russian or German. My grand parents thought it would hold me back. My parents never thought it was necessary ... and I didn't know any better.

Three generations from speaking only POLISH to speaking only ENGLISH. The pattern has been repeated with every successive ethnic group that's come to this country ... with the exception of the English, for obvious reasons.

If you go to the Vietnamese communities in San Francisco or along the Gulf Coast - refugees from the Vietnam War - you'll find that those who are our age speak Vietnamese pretty much. Their children, who've been in American schools speak both. In the next generation, the grand children will have a Vietnamese heritage .. but they will be speaking English almost exclusively.

It happened with Polish Americans.

It happened with German Americans (except for the Pennsylvania Dutch who stil speak a variant of Low German and no one is insisting THEY learn English OR that they assimilate.)

It happened to the Italian Americans, the Czechs, and the Chinese railroad workers in the 1880s (though the assimilation took a little longer for them - we kept beating them to death with bigotry when they left their Chinatowns.)

There was ONE group with whom we did experiment - insisting on assimilation within one generation and English only. I think he experience they and we had is instructive. The group was the Native American population in this country. It would be worth it to read a little about places like the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania where the Sioux and Navajo and Cheyenne children were ripped from their parents, sent half way across the country, forbidden to speak their native languages, and forced to speak English only. I think a read of the details would shame the heart of the most ardent supporter of "Assimilation Now". It was not our finest hour as a nation ... and they (and we) are still paying a sorry price.

The History of the Carlisle Indian School

The most embarrassing moment came during WWII when our military needed a way of communicating information from one place to another on the battle front ... a means of communicating upon which the Japanese could not eavesdrop. Fortunately, the Navajo preserved some of their language and, in spite of the enforced "assimilation" process of the previous 50 years, they were able to revive the intricacies of their language and develop the "Code Talkers".

Navajo Code Talkers

Assimilation happens ... it cannot be legislated.

Sorry to get off on a rant but I did want to address what you had written in your earlier note.


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