I come from a country where anybody could speak two to three languages easily, even those who are considered illiterate for demographic purposes. They possess working knowledge of more than one language.
When I first came to this country I resisted all the attempts of my well-meaning friends to teach me the perfect American accent as much as I could. Assimilation was not in my agenda. I did not want to fit into the mainstream. But that has happened anyway and without any efforts on my part. Probably I could say it was the new wave of brainwashing. It slowly seeped into my brain like the sunlight at daybreak. You can not pinpoint the specific moment when it happens. I can’t remember the specific moment when I stopped thinking in Telugu and started thinking in English.
Sometimes I feel like this language issue is no worse than the colonization I’ve heard so much about in my childhood days. I feel like somebody else is telling me what to say, how to say, and even to think in what language. And they say it’s my choice!
In fact, there is something else that led me think on these lines. That was long time ago. I turned the TV on. The movie “Roots” was showing. I watched it only for a few minutes. It was too violent for me. The scene I watched however made a permanent impression on my mind—it was about the captors telling the young man to change his name to Tony. The young man took all the whipping and kept insisting that his name was Kinte Kunte. I understood for the first time what identity meant. The name, the face, the color, the language, the customs—they all come in one package. That is one’s culture.
You can see why the language issue is a sensitive subject for me. English, ubiquitous as it is, is one of the millions of languages of the world. Some people miss this point for some outlandish reason. I have come across people who look blank when they hear a sound that did not sound like English. Even a personal name never heard before could become a challenge for them.
The family next door arrived here a month ago from another country. They came to America in search of freedom and better life, as always. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that they didn’t speak English. That was their first major hurdle.
It was early November. The temperatures were falling rapidly. I was sitting in my living room with a blanket in my lap and a book in my hand. I heard a knock on the door.
I opened the door and saw the woman next door standing with panic written large on her face. She gestured to the puff of smoke rising out of the chimney across the street and mumbled something. I managed to understand that she thought the house was on fire. I smiled and tried to calm her down the best way I could. I tapped on her shoulders gently and said it was okay. I am sure the words were lost on her but my gestures conveyed the message. My English did not come to my rescue for sure.
The father was working in a gas station and the mother as a cleaning lady in our neighborhood. They bought some 1970s Dodge for $500. The car needed new tires, new battery and new carburetor. I couldn’t help wondering about their dream.
Then came the time to admit their nine-year old son in school. Since the parents spoke no English, I went with them and walked them through the process. They signed wherever I told them to sign. The signatures were in their language, and so, I witnessed their signatures. And as God is my witness they had no idea what they were agreeing to and I had no way of telling them so. The principal heaved a sigh of relief feeling good that we have managed to protect the system!
Jenina, the teacher, was very kind. She took his hand and walked him to his classroom.
“Here is a new boy in our class,” she announced to the class and turned to him, “What is your name?”
The boy did not reply. The teacher couldn’t recall the name she had seen on the registration form. She remembered the first syllable of his name and came up with the idea.
“We will call you Phil. Okay?”
The boy was either confused or protesting. He pursed his lips tight.
“Hi Phil,” the entire class shouted.
We left the boy, Phabwugin at the school for the day. The only blessing in all this was the school was within walking distance. He could walk back to home.
Next day Phabwugin or Phil refused to go to school. The parents argued with him, yelled at him and finally got him go to the school.
A week later I went to their apartment to see how they were doing. I returned after a couple of hours. My brother Gopu, a sophomore in a local college, was waiting for me.
“Where have you been?” he asked me. He was so accustomed to seeing me slouched on the couch watching TV, he was surprised I was not home at that hour.
“Next door. Chatting with the mother,” I said.
He laughed. “You two don’t even speak the same language. What were chatting about for two hours?”
Gopu, 15 years younger, is pretty much next generation. He is a city-bred, a product of English medium school, a borderline bilingual at best.
“Well, if you can talk to a dog or a plant, you can talk to a human too,” I rejoined.
I noticed that Phil was putting up a fierce fight each day to go to school.
One day he came back with a bloody nose, and the next day with a black eye.
The following week, Jenina showed up at their door. It was no brainer to see that she couldn’t get far with the parents though.
Jenina was a kind and caring person. She has read books, attended workshops, and presented papers at conferences on teaching English as Second Language. She has mastered the art and science of ESL. She was trying very hard to teach the perfect American English to this kid. She wanted him to be her success story.
Jenina spent extra hours with Phil. Developed tools exclusively for him. Eventually Phil came to like her. He didn’t mind spending time with her after school, but speaking English was a different story.
Things were getting tougher. Everyday I saw Phil with a black eye or bruised arm. Then came the big blow. The principal was keen on expelling Phil, or suspending him for a semester. Phil brought a kitchen knife to school.
Jenina talked to the principal and told him that she would talk to the parents.
For a second time she came to pay a visit to the parents. This time they all made sure that I was home. She explained to me in great detail all the steps she was taking not only to teach Phil English but also to instil the importance of learning English into his little head. Her efforts included making flash cards to suit his specific needs—which meant making cards carrying the name of his country, fruits and vegetables grown in his country, his gods, his festivals… I could see she was sincerely trying to help him.
Phil was not interested in those cards for the obvious reason. The other children in his class were not interested in those things. For them, the words were just weird.
Then she switched to the local culture. She prepared cards exemplifying life in America-the movies, music, hip-hop, national heroes, local stories … Phil did not appreciate that either.
The teacher was getting frustrated. What would it take to make this little boy speak English?
Jenina gave him children’s books. He did not find them interesting. She gave him audio cassettes of children’s songs and told him to sing along. He was too old for those songs. He did not say so exactly. The way he looked at those pieces said so.
She kept talking about the virtues of being a bilingual. Once he has mastered the English language, he could be the proud speaker of two languages, a perfect bilingual kid.
“May be you could speak English at home also, as a way of reinforcing what you have learned at school,” Jenina suggested.
“…..” Phil blurted out an expletive.
We the adults were stunned and stared at each other. The parents said something to the effect that he should watch his language. At least, that was my understanding of the words they spoke to him.
“There! You want English, you got it,” I said, amused. I knew it was not very nice of me. But my point was—children would pick up the language much faster than we think and at places we don’t think of.
Jenina kept insisting that they all should speak English at home. I was beginning to lose patience.
“But you do know that the parents don’t speak English,” I said.
“Tell them to learn English. You know language is one of the important survival skills. They need to learn English if they want to live in this country,” she was trying to be very polite. But the words sounded harsh. They sounded harsh to me, at the least. She has a point. That annoyed me even more.
“Explain to them,” she said again.
I copped out. I had to.
“I don’t have the language skills at that level to explain your opinion to them,” I replied, struggling hard to be polite.
“But you do communicate with them,” she insisted.
That ticked me off.
“Remember what you’ve said earlier about being a bilingual kid?”
“The way I see it, language is culture. Home is the only place where they can keep their language and their culture. If you insist that they should speak English at home, you are asking them to ignore their own language and then their own culture. Then you are not making him a bilingual kid. You are making him English-speaking monolingual,” I said, fiercely struggling with my own emotions.
I told them I had something to do and left in a hurry.
I was beside myself. I was fretting and fuming for all evening. The rice was burned. The curry was too salty. The soup turned out more like industrial strength paint.
“What is wrong?” my brother asked me, pulling out TV dinner from the freezer.
“The teacher is so keen on making him ubhayabhasha praveena[i] (specialization of scholarship in two languages).”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“That is not making him bilingual. That is destroying his culture. God knows he will master English soon enough.”
“You don’t mean that,” he said. He was referring to the phrase ‘destroying the culture.’
“Well,” I growled and walked away into my bedroom. He did not follow me. He knew better than that.
I looked out the window. The boy was hanging around in front of our apartment, but not too close. I wondered what was he doing there? What did he want?
After a few minutes, Gopu went out with a basketball. He was throwing hoops. Then he gestured the boy to join him The boy responded quickly. They were throwing the ball into the hoop. I was watching them. The boy was good. There was not much of a conversation but for a few words like ‘wow’ and ‘good’ from Gopu. The only words I could hear were the sounds of heart to heart talk—that universal language!
Gopu did not have to go through this three-ring circus. He came from home, well-prepared, all set, ready to go. He has arrived here fully equipped. His Telugu was just one notch above the level of Phil’s English.
Language is culture. Home is the only place where they can keep their culture-the last resort of human yearning for identity.
I know these kids will start speaking English soon enough–watch TV, the movies, hip-hop, football, Miller light, Apple pie … the all-American dream.
Gopu was sent to English medium school from the start and was groomed well to fit in to the US culture. He had no problem assimilating in to the local culture. I am sure one day Phil will speak only English, watch only Hollywood movies, sing rock or pop … He probably would become one of those computer geeks, get a job or start his own small business and will try to earn big bucks on the Wheel of Fortune or Family Feud, Wisconsin lottery or Ho Chunk Casino. I am also sure he would have no idea of his culture, none whatsoever, I mean in the real sense of the term. In his school and outside, he will be labeled bilingual, although his vocabulary in his mother tongue is limited to a few colloquial phrases! I can easily assess the extant of his vocabulary. We the first generation adults speak English. But when we lose our temper the choice phrases from our mother tongue spring gushing forth from our mouth. Our children pick up this phraseology faster than the words for polite conversation. Mother tongue becomes the language of insults. I have seen my brother draw from his Telugu terminology in addition to a few English phrases which I wouldn’t care to repeat. Well, he is discreet in my presence but I am fully aware of the extent of his language skills in Telugu.
My heart sank tumbling down into the bottomless pit. I have no words to explain for this sadness. I was overwhelmed at the thought that these two kids would draw from two languages only when they are upset.