Immigrants sacrifice a lot to come to this country - heritage languages shouldn’t be part of that sacrifice.
Today I’ll share about my two favorite immigrants (my parents) hoping their stories will personify a topic that is often dehumanized. Their stories are obviously not representative of the entire body of immigrants to this country, but I hope they will broaden your view of what drives immigration and shed light on the many sacrifices made-- immigration is always a trade-off. Then, I’ll argue that immigrants shouldn’t give up their heritage language when they come to the U.S. because it’s a beautiful inheritance for their children and something that enriches our country as a whole.
My Favorite Immigrants
My mom was born in a small town in central Mexico. As a little girl, she got polio, resulting in the paralysis of her right leg which never fully developed. She has worn a brace to walk since the time she was 3. She came to the U.S. at the age of 21 hoping there was still a way to fully heal her leg– from her small town in Mexico, the U.S. seemed like a land where even the miraculous might be possible. When I turned 21, I reflected on her journey: Could I leave my family and home country to start a new life in a place with new norms and customs, without speaking the language? The thought overwhelmed me.
When she came, my mom wasn’t sure how long she’d stay. Maybe she could receive medical care to improve her physical condition and return to her México lindo y querido? Over time, my mom recognized that persons with disabilities had more opportunities in the U.S. If she returned to Mexico, she believed she'd never get married or have children because there was too much stigma surrounding persons with disabilities where she grew up. Furthermore, there was so much more support here. The buses, the ramps, the elevators– she pointed them out to us regularly as kids. ¡Solo en este país! Mira todas las comodidades. She made us appreciate the infrastructure all around us; we marveled at services that we otherwise would have easily overlooked.
My mom loves being Mexican. She savors every part of her culture. She cried on the day she became a U.S. citizen because on that day she felt like she was becoming a little less Mexican and that hurt her deeply. She loves the U.S., too, but it was a huge sacrifice to leave her country to make a new life here. My mom came to the U.S. because she hoped for the full recovery of her leg. She stayed in the U.S. because she saw that persons with disabilities were bolstered by the services and infrastructure here.
My dad came to the U.S. as a political refugee– fleeing La Revolución Sandinista in Nicaragua. Like my mom with Mexico, he loves and savors all things Nicaragua and is tickled when we show preferences for nacatamales, queso frito or vigorón. He chose to leave Nicaragua for many complex reasons. He loves the U.S., too, and deeply appreciates that he found asylum here.
My parents, like so many immigrants, were compelled to leave their countries to secure a better future. Although most discussions of immigrants tend to focus narrowly around financial motivations, for my parents the desire to come to the U.S. was about a lot more than money. With these two personal examples I hope I’ve illustrated how immigrants come to the U.S. for a myriad of reasons, and coming is almost always a trade-off: immigrants give up a lot to come. And of all the things they give up, their heritage language should NOT be one of them.
Why Immigrants Should Cherish, Maintain and Pass-On Their Heritage Languages
Immigrants to the U.S. have a wonderful opportunity to learn English in an immersion environment and they should take advantage of this opportunity! But they should also maintain and pass on their heritage language(s) because they are uniquely suited to do it and because it is a beautiful way to enrich our American culture.
There is no doubt that it’s challenging, I know. But there is even less doubt about how rewarding it is to pass on your bilingualism. I can’t express how grateful I am that my parents taught me Spanish. My bilingualism shaped every part of me and added color, depth and richness to my life. Bilingualism is a priceless gift, with innumerable benefits: enhanced attention span, cognitive abilities, executive function, economic opportunity, self-identity and awareness, empathy and kindness and on and on. Bilingualism is a beautiful inheritance and something immigrants to this country are well suited to share with their kids.
Just the other day I was talking with a friend of mine who couldn’t understand why parents who speak more than one language would choose to not pass it on. As a monolingual who wants her kids to grow up bilingual, she recognizes that bilingual parents have an enormous advantage for raising bilingual kids. They know a language and can teach it to their kids! So why would these parents choose not to raise bilingual kids?
I explained to my friend that passing on bilingualism is hard even for bilingual parents (and some would argue that it’s even harder for them than for monolingual Americans because the weight of the cultural pressures to assimilate outweigh the benefit of fluency in the heritage language). There are many reasons why– resources to support bilingual parents are still lacking, it can be a lonely road, and, sadly, in many parts of the US, it can still feel un-American to choose bilingualism. The history here is complex. For many decades, the American socio-political agenda discouraged multilingualism so that English and a common culture surrounding it could prevail. At the same time, research around bilingualism was misguided and the accepted science mistakenly stated that bilingualism was a disadvantage for kids. All of these factors mixed together led to a vast departure from bilingualism that we’re still unraveling today. The United States would come to be known as a language graveyard.
And yet, my friend is right. Bilingual parents have an enormous advantage when it comes to raising bilingual children. And the United States, land of immigrants that it is, has a unique opportunity to be a land of multilingualism where English and countless other languages can thrive together. We can make our country richer in this way. Immigrants and immigrant-identifying families should maintain and share their bilingualism because it’s what’s best for our kids and for the future of our country.
How? Here are just 3 suggestions for things we can do immediately:
Use and/or Create Services and Products that Support Bilingual Families
Bilingual families need meaningful opportunities to engage with the minority language. They don’t just need a few, they need many across topics, mediums, and depth. If you’ve identified a gap in the support you’ve needed as a bilingual parent, support a business addressing it or consider creating a solution to fill that gap. There is a need for materials that will resonate authentically with an American, cross-cultural audience, and we all need to work together to bring them to life. At Lelu, we’re working hard to fill the gaps that we’ve identified, and we stand in solidarity with other businesses doing the same. Let’s work together to design the future we need!
Create Communities for Bilingual Support
Community is critical when it comes to bilingual education. Languages are about connecting with other humans. You can’t learn a language in a vacuum, you need other people to live that language out with you. So create or find a community, locally or online. Wherever it makes sense to you, fold your family into bilingual communities so you don’t feel alone.
Be Gracious and Ready to Give a Reason When Faced with Opposition
Especially if you live in a part of the country where it can feel un-American to choose bilingualism, be ready to educate those around you. I know how hard this can be. I remember being left speechless after a man in a Miami airport asked me and my brothers to stop speaking Spanish because we “are in America.” I know it’s hard to feel the stares when you’re speaking to your child in a non-English language in public. We’ve got to be willing to stand out, and to speak up and educate others with graciousness when the opportunities present themselves. I often think to myself, “if I do this well, we could get to a future where it will be easier for my children to raise bilingual kids in this country.” We are paving the way for multiple future generations of bilingual children! Let’s be bold, kind and not lose heart.I hope we, immigrant-identifying families and all different types of Americans, can embrace this challenge and become a country of thriving bilinguals. That is our mission at Lelu and what we’re working toward each day. Pa’lante!