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Or the situation at Duke University last month, when one of its medical school professors was asked to step down after she sent a warning to students to speak English only, or risk the "unintended consequences when you choose to speak Chinese in the building. Gutting US foreign language education will cost us for generations. What are the unintended consequences of being shamed or threatened into speaking English?
When our relationship to our mother tongue is compromised, so, too, is our self-image and our most natural way of interacting with the world. As I grew up, the shame I felt about my mother tongue eventually drove a wedge between me and my own mother, who never learned English.
Since my parents were divorced and my siblings and I lived with our father, we would sporadically visit our mother at her one-room studio in downtown Los Angeles near Skid Row, surrounded by homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts. When she'd first arrived in the US at 30, my mother worked at a garment factory trimming threads for 15 cents per garment. Later, she quit that job and became a vendor at the local swap meets selling Avon products and cheap plastic sandals. She supplemented her income by picking cans and bottles out of the trash and taking them to the recycling center.
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By then, my siblings and I had bought into the belief that to succeed in this country you had forfeit your cultural identity, so we would constantly encourage our mother to go to adult school and learn English. She would shake her head, dismayed by our suggestion.
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Watch woman defend Spanish speakers at store As my siblings and I became English-proficient and finally, English-dominant, we began to reject our mother and everything she represented. To our Americanized eyes, she was a symbol of what we didn't want to be -- a working-class, uneducated, non-English-speaking immigrant.
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The more we were educated in US schools and the more we assimilated, the more we internalized the disdain American society has for someone like my mother. My siblings and I spoke English all the time, and as the years passed, we both consciously and unconsciously excluded our mother from all our conversations and eventually, from our middle-class American lives. As an adult, I've come to realize how important bilingualism is in a diverse country such as ours, and yet, those formative experiences in school prevented me from teaching Spanish to my own children.
The same was true for my sisters. On those rare times they'd see their grandmother, my children couldn't speak to her without the help of Google Translate. Just like it had with me, the language barrier created a distance between my children and my mother. My teenage son can't speak Spanish beyond level 1. My young daughter's Spanish was as limited as my son's, but a few years ago we moved to Davis, California, and to our surprise, the local elementary school, Marguerite Montgomery Elementary, offered a two-way Spanish immersion program even though the population is I saw this as an opportunity to undo my mistake and requested for my daughter to be enrolled in the program.
But, since she was entering halfway through second grade and not in kindergarten when students typically begin, she was given a placement test. She almost failed it.
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Luckily, they let her in anyway. Where are you 'really' from? Try another question. Six months later, I was invited to visit her classroom to see my daughter's final project: a minute slideshow presentation about thorn bugs -- in Spanish. In six months, my daughter had become completely bilingual and able to read in both languages, with no loss to her native tongue, and better yet, no trauma.
When I took her to Mexico to visit my relatives over the holidays, she was so happy to be able to speak to everyone there, including her own grandmother, whom I had invited to join us on the trip as a way to reconnect. There we were -- my mother, my daughter, and I speaking Spanish together. My daughter's experience with language learning has been the opposite of mine.
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Her teachers have never made her feel that she must sacrifice, subtract, replace or reject anything about herself. The most important lesson her bilingual program has taught her is this: She is now more, not less, than who she used to be.
It took me into my adulthood to realize the extent of the damage caused by my educational trauma wrought by institutions that shamed me into speaking only English. But I am slowly reclaiming what I'd been forced to give up -- my connection to my mother tongue and with it, my relationship with my own mother. Search Close Advanced Search Help.
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