Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




June 22, 2007

My grandfather, Ellis Allen, Sr. I am told, spoke with a musical French accent, as did his sister, Aunt Isobel, who migrated with other Allen family members to Oakland at the end of the 19th century. I barely remember my grandfather and his accent, not at all, but that information does not now surprise me. My father’s people were from the Louisiana bayou country, St. James Parish, near New Orleans, where French was the predominant settler language for years until “the Americans came” and supplanted it with English.

Betty Reid Soskin, my first cousin, who is a generation ahead of me, remembers our mutual great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, who spoke French as her first language, as well as Creole, which in Louisiana is a jazz-blend language combining French and African words and grammar. Betty remembers from her childhood aunts who used to throw out nicknames and phrases which were just family words to her, then, but which she now knows to have been French or Creole.

As far as I know, Betty does not speak French. Neither did my father, who was her contemporary, nor, to my knowledge, did any of the other family members of their generation. That continued down into my generation, as well. The only one in my immediate family who speaks French is my brother, who learned it not at home, but at school.

French (and, sadly, Creole as well) died out in my family a generation before I came on this earth. What worlds, I wonder, would have opened up for me if they had not, and I had learned the two languages easily, naturally, at the breakfast table, as I did English. I will never know, because that door is forever closed.

And that is what worries me about the recent, well-publicized suggestion to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that in order to quicker learn English, Latinos should "turn off the Spanish television set"—in effect, should abandon Spanish.

This is not knee-jerk Arnold-bashing from the left. Mr. Schwarzenegger has his faults, but he should not be quickly dismissed when it comes to discussion about the best and quickest way to pick up the native language in a new country. Obviously, he knows what he is talking about, from experience.

“When I came to this country, I did not, or very rarely, spoke German to anyone,” the governor told the journalists. “Not that I didn’t like Austria, my heart was always in Austria, but I wanted to as quickly as possible learn the English language. And I felt that through immersion, and just really sitting in front of the television set—and I remember I watched all the comedies and the news programs. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but nevertheless I watched it, and eventually I got with it, and I learned. And I remember that the teachers at Santa Monica College also told me the same thing. They said, ‘Read the LA Times, even though you don’t understand it. Look at your dictionary and learn, and look at books that are English, look at comic books that are English, watch television, listen to radio that is English.’ And it really helped me, that within a year and a half or two years, I really got my act together so I could read the paper and I could understand the news and really get with it also in school.”

That seems to be excellent advice, if your goal is only to convert to a new language. But what if you want to preserve the old language at the same time you are picking up the new?

America has not had much success with that.

Given our history, we ought to be one of the most linguistically-diverse nations on earth. While the Jamestown, Virginia colonists spoke English, themselves, they and their fellow British settlers were immediately exposed to a vast polyglot of Native American languages and language groups: Wampanoag, Lenape, Susquehannock, Catawba, Muskogee, Mohican, Powhatan…and that was on the east coast alone. It is estimated that at the time of the original English settlement in North America, there were some 250 Native American languages spoken in the territory now covered by the United States.

Just as there was no “one” Native American language, there was no “one” African language, either. European slave catchers ranged up and down the west and east coasts of Africa, and the captives brought across the Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries to work on North American plantations reflected that rich linguistic diversity. Linguist Lorenzo D. Turner’s 1949 “Africanisms In The Gullah Dialect”—still the defining work on African language in America—lists some 32 separate African languages represented in the personal names of African-Americans he found as late as the 1940’s in the coastal areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and north Florida: Yoruba, Twi, Wolof, Kongo, Mende, Fon, Umbundu. And unlike the middle-Georgia drawl you hear by Black actors in such slavery-era movies as “Gone With The Wind,” the Slave Quarters was actually a rich brew of multiple blended languages and accents, so diverse it is hard to imagine, today, how it must have sounded.

African spoken language in America directly descended from the slaverytime days has all but disappeared—there is only a pale, plaintive echo in the Gullah dialect spoken on the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands, along with a multitude of African words hidden, like Orishas amongst the Catholic saints, in modern American speech. Jazz (probably from the Bantu word jaja), dig (as in “I can dig that” from deg, the Wolof word for understanding), goober (a popular nickname among white Southerners that is from the Kimbundu word guba for peanut), and yam (Mende for, of course, sweet potato).

In a similar way, Native American language lies largely unacknowledged among many American place names: Hiyaleyah (Seminole), Mississippi (Algonquin), Michigan (Ottawa), Malibu (Ventureño), Manhattan (Delaware). Unlike African language, a significant number of Native American language speakers remain in this country, though until such movies as “Dances With Wolves” and the Daniel Day-Lewis version of “The Last Of The Mohicans,” most Americans never had any exposure to them.

So it is with the European languages that came to America. Successive waves of European immigrants have come to this country: French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, German, Polish, Greek, Dutch, Lithuanian… Many established newspapers in their native languages, and for a generation, their communities hummed with a foreign tongue. But most of those languages have since all but disappeared from our shores, as the first generation of American born children provided a bridge between the two languages (think of Michael Corleone conversing at the restaurant in Italian with the “Turk” in “The Godfather”), but the second generation feeling little need to speak anything but English. The Bay Area, for example, once had large Italian- and Portuguese-speaking communities, but those two languages are almost completely gone from our streets and shops.

I freely confess my ignorance as to the trends that are happening in the communities of current non-European, non-Spanish-speaking immigrants. In the Chinatown commercial sections of San Francisco and Oakland, you can often hear conversations in Mandarin or Cantonese, and nothing else. So it is with the Southeast Asian immigrant communities—Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai—and in the shops and stores run by various Arab entrepreneurs. But as an outsider not familiar with those communities, it is impossible to tell whether these folks are holding onto their native language in a way that was different from earlier groups, and will be retained, or if the old languages are holding on because those communities are still in the midst of immigrating. Perhaps it is a little of both.

But outside of the smaller Chinese and South Vietnamese and Arab or East Indian pockets—where the trend may not yet have been established—and outside of the larger, and spreading, Latino community—which sits on the border of a Spanish-speaking country and whose Spanish is being constantly enriched and strengthened by continuing new waves of incoming Spanish speakers—the clear trend in America from its inception has been to drop the old languages in our wake as we take up English.

I struggle to understand why that is a good thing.

With the rise of American world power following the Second World War into what is almost always described today as “the world’s only superpower”—“superpower” being a largely undefined phenomenon—Americans have used a sort of sledgehammer approach to linguistic dominance, using our considerable economic and military power to force to world to do its business in our tongue, and our tongue only. That is great for the national ego, perhaps, but in that direction, much is lost. To speak more than one language is like having both a car and a boat in your garage. It allows you to travel on two different mediums, in two different ways, in two different directions. Why would anyone voluntarily give that up?

And that is why, in the end, I believe Mr. Schwarzenegger’s advice to the Latino journalists and their followers to be ill-advised. Those among us who come to this country speaking Spanish only ought to do as much as they can to learn English. It will be both to their benefit and ours, and we ought to figure out ways to help and advance that process any way we can.

But at the same time, I cannot see why they should ever put away their Spanish. Or Mandarin. Or Vietnamese. Or Arabic. Or Tagalog. Or Hindi. Or Afrikaans. Or Italian. Or German. Or anything else.

Instead, we ought to figure out a way that they can teach their languages to the rest of us. The American Experience ought not to run on a one-way street. And it ought to be an expanding one, not contracting. That seems such a waste of such a valuable, valuable national resource.

Instead of our Spanish-speaking friends turning off the Spanish-language television, maybe more of us English speakers should turn it on.