Saturday, May 20, 2006

Language and Assimilation, Then and Now

The fuss over the Spanish-language version of the "Star Spangled Banner," which I wrote about earlier, continues and may even be picking up pace.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday:

After an emotional debate fraught with symbolism, the Senate yesterday voted to make English the "national language" of the United States, declaring that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law.

The measure, approved 63 to 34, directs the government to "preserve and enhance" the role of English, without altering current laws that require some government documents and services be provided in other languages. Opponents, however, said it could negate executive orders, regulations, civil service guidances and other multilingual ordinances not officially sanctioned by acts of Congress.
According to a public-opinion survey released on March 30 by the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press,
One of the continuing sources of conflict over the assimilation of immigrants is language, as seen in recurring battles over English-only policies and statutes. A sizable majority of the survey's respondents (58%) said they believe that most recent immigrants do not learn English within a reasonable amount of time; slightly more than a third (35%) say that they do.

Within the case study communities, the belief that immigrants lag behind in the adoption of English ranged from a high of 66% in Phoenix and Las Vegas to 51% in the Washington metro area.
As linguist Geoff Nunberg said on "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" this week:
What's the Spanish for "poppycock"?

The fact is that the vast majority of Hispanics in America already speak English, and the rest are learning it much faster than the Germans, Italians, or those Norwegian bachelor farmers did a century ago.

Back then, after all, the economic incentives for learning English were nowhere near as great as they are now. Most immigrants lived in isolated rural areas or urban ethnic enclaves, and a lot of cities had separate public school systems for immigrants -- not like today's transitional bilingual programs, but schools where all the instruction was carried out in German or other languages.

According to demographers, the average immigrant family in 1900 took more than three generations to make the complete transition to English dominance. Now it takes just over two. By the third or fourth generation, in fact, most Hispanics are as depressingly monolingual in English as any other American group.
Nunberg's fact-based analysis seems to be reflected instinctively by the majority of respondents to the Pew poll, who think independently of those who are demagoguing the immigration debate:
Most people nationwide (61%) who say they have contact with immigrants who speak little or no English say it does not bother them; 38% say they are bothered by this experience. While people in Phoenix and Las Vegas report more contact with immigrants who do not speak English well, majorities in both cities say they are not bothered by this (58% in Phoenix, 56% in Las Vegas).
My own mother was one of those third-generation descendants of immigrants who became monolingual in English only after an early childhood that was monolingual in another language (in this case, Polish). She decided to speak English exclusively at the age of six when kids on the playground made fun of her accent; she spent the rest of her life able to understand spoken Polish, but unable to read it, write it, or speak it herself. (My grandparents, on the other hand, remained bilingual throughout their lives, while my great-grandparents lost the ability to speak or understand English toward the end of their very long lives -- likely more a consequence of senility than a lack of commitment toward American culture and values.)

Nunberg mentions in his "Fresh Air" commentary an article by Ann Powers in the Los Angeles Times, which reports that one of the most popular songs among the pro-immigrant demonstrators is Neil Diamond's tribute to his (East European, Jewish) grandparents, "(They're Coming to) America":
Amid the mariachi music, socially conscious corridos and civil rights hymns at last week's immigration-rights rallies, a surprising voice arose — a strong Jewish baritone usually favored by middle-aged women and retro-hip college kids. It was Neil Diamond, singing his own exodus anthem: "America," from the pop elder statesman's 1980 remake of America's first talkie, "The Jazz Singer."

The recording opened and closed the May 1 speakers' program at City Hall. It's made its way into reports of rallies in Dallas, Kansas City and Milwaukee. Although hardly the official anthem of La Raza, "America's" portrait of travelers "traveling light … in the eye of a storm" is outdoing more standard fare such as "If I Had a Hammer," giving Diamond something like the role Bob Dylan played during the civil rights era of the 1960s. . . .

"It's the immigrant anthem," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "Every time I've been at different activities over time, you'll have the Neil Diamond song. It speaks to the experience."

The song is built like a footpath up a monument, the melody swooping downward to rise up again, its key changes and call-and-response elements ("They're coming to America!" "Today!") forcing the tension. Rooted in the Yiddish music of Diamond's Brooklyn youth, the song moves on to Broadway and the Borscht Belt and lands on the edge of disco — a border-crossing trek unto itself. This intentional hugeness, this insistence on being an anthem, makes "America" easy to mock but also impossible to resist.
I find it intriguing, but not incredible, that today's Hispanic immigrants learn English at a faster rate than the immigrants who arrived at about the same time as Neil Diamond's grandparents and my great-grandparents. To learn it tells me that it is never a good idea to simply accept conventional wisdom, but better to explore the facts and use those as a basis for public policy.

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