The Immigration Debate

Date: Sat, 15 Apr 2006
Subject: Re: Language Teachers and the immigration debate

At the ACTFL workshop at the Northeast Conference, Marty Abbot asked for suggestions to help build support for foreign language instruction.

My suggestion was to encourage ACTFL to take a stand on the immigration debate and participate in the actions that are happening across the country. In one week, 2 million people participated in marches and demos in large and small cities. This presence will only get larger and more powerful. We need to see those fighting for immigrant rights as our natural allies. A big advance of our profession has been how our standards have made a stronger link between the people and the language rather than the "literature" and the language. We need to take that connection to the next level. It will only make our profession stronger to stand by those who actually speak other languages.

One suggestion is to encourage all our language associations to take a stand and become active supporters of immigrant rights. This is not a big leap. The Catholic Church, labor unions and many community organizations have already done this. As teachers, we also need to encourage our unions to aggressively support immigrant rights. First, many of our members, especially foreign language teachers, are immigrants. Moreover, one of the provisions that are being considered is that anyone who helps an "illegal" immigrant (that includes teachers and guidance counselors) may be subject to prosecution. So, this is not an esoteric point. If we do nothing, it may affect all of us.

So many of the problems that we face in our country are intertwined with this debate. For example, I tried to attend the demo in New York City last Monday in support of immigrant rights. The police cordoned off so many streets that, after walking around the edge of the demo for 45 minutes, we were still not allowed to enter the rally area. The police told us that we had to continue walking north of the demo. When we were more than a mile away, we gave up, as did hundreds of others. This is also a civil rights issue. The police in New York City, under the guise of 'fighting terrorism,' have greatly restricted the constitutionally protected right to free assembly. I encourage everyone to investigate these issues and take a stand.

Date: Sun, 23 Apr 2006
Subject: Re: FL teaching and the ILLEGAL immigration debate

The debate on immigration cannot be separated into “legal” immigration and “illegal” immigration. Both are part of a continuum.

Let’s start with the reasons for the widespread immigration from Mexico, legal or otherwise. While there has always been movement across the border of the US and Mexico, since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, an unprecedented number of people from Mexico have entered the United States. This agreement took a heavy toll on Mexican farmers and urban trade unions. The heavy subsidies that large American farm corporations receive from the US government forced many Mexican farmers into bankruptcy. Trade unions also found their power decreased and real wages have dropped up to 20% as American companies set up shop in Mexico. NAFTA improved the US economic indicators at the cost of the livelihoods of many Mexican and American workers and farmers. What responsibility does the US government have to all workers and farmers displaced by these accords? Would people risk so much, leave their families and countries behind in such great numbers, if they had other options?

Furthermore, the laws being discussed on immigration right now will have an impact on all immigrants. If illegal immigrants become felons, as one of the proposals before Congress would have it, how much harassment will legal immigrants suffer? If you have an accent, or worse, if you speak in your native language, will you be suspected of being a criminal? If it becomes illegal to aid illegal immigrants, will teachers and guidance counselors be unwilling to help any child with an accent or other immigrant characteristics for fear of prosecution? The draconian measures being discussed right now will not only affect illegal immigrants, they will affect all of us. From the perspective of a language teacher, these measures may also have a very serious backlash for our language programs. If having an accent or speaking a language other than English is such a liability, how will learning another language be viewed? Research suggests a relationship between the prestige of the speakers of a language in a particular country and the motivation of the learners of that language. The lower the prestige level of the language in a society strongly correlates to lower success rates of its learners (Brosh, T., 1993). Since much of the free-floating ire against immigrants is directed against Spanish speakers (the largest, most visible immigrant population), how will our Spanish classes be impacted?

My hope is that Congress recognize all the factors that go into this latest wave of immigration, including the responsibility of the US government for the dislocation of Mexican and American workers and farmers caused by NAFTA and that it enact laws that support the livelihoods and dignity of these hard working people without penalty. I further hope that our countrymen realize the richness that new cultures and languages can bring to their lives and welcome our new neighbors with warmth and human solidarity.

Date: Sun, 30 Apr 2006
Subject: Re: Nuestro himno

English is not the official language of the United States. Our founding fathers debated this question and decide not to declare any one language the official language because there were as many German speakers as there were English speakers at the time.

The ‘English Only’ movement in the US wants to change that to make English the official language in our country. However, the US is still a multi-lingual country and I would have to agree with our founding fathers on this one. With so many Spanish speakers in this country (we are currently the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world!!!) making our most treasured traditions and documents available in Spanish, or any other language for that matter, would be an honest acknowledgement of reality. In a democracy, all people should have access to vital information like what rights and protections we believe all humans are entitled to. One of the things that impressed me about Hugo Chavez, the elected president of Venezuela, is that he instituted a literacy campaign and used the country's new constitution as one of the most important texts that people learn to read. It is made available freely to everyone in the country. Most newsstand carry copies of the constitution. I wish that would happen in the US. I would especially like that the New York City police force would be encouraged to read the constitution so they would have an idea of the laws they are supposed to uphold instead of the harassing and intimidating behavior they engage in when people are exercising their democratic right to peaceful assembly.

Date: Wed, 3 May 2006
Subject: Re: US and an "official language"

While there are several Internet links that decry the official German vs. English vote at the Continental Congress as a myth, the fact is that there was a debate about the role German would play in the linguistic history of this country. According to Joshua Fishman, a linguist from Stanford University, German has been the most prominent and durable European heritage language to interact with US English since colonial times.

If one traces the history of this interaction, as Fishman does, one can see all the same debates unfold as we see with current heritage languages that are present in our country. German was not limited to Pennsylvania. It was prominent in the Midwest and had a noticeable presence in the New York metropolitan area. There were ‘Germantowns’ in New York City and many of the surrounding communities. I grew up in Clifton, New Jersey surrounded by German speaking neighbors, shopkeepers and religious congregations.

The issues that have be played out since colonial times are the availability of translation of documents and services, availability of bilingual education, the right to use one's native language in public and to pass one's language on to one's children. At the height of German bilingual education in 1913, there were more than a quarter of a million students in German bilingual programs. At the start of World War I, laws were passed in many states to outlaw German bilingual and foreign language education. Speaking German was considered unpatriotic and over the last century, the number of German speakers has continued to decline. Today, German can be considered one of the less commonly taught languages.

What is important is to remember as foreign language teachers (bringing it back to the purpose of the FLTeach) is that our profession is tied to the country's attitudes toward speakers of other languages. The more acceptance and support of heritage languages have, the more our profession will flourish. And from my personal perspective, as a profession, we veer off course when we enlist ad agency-like campaigns to promote the teaching of other languages while we ignore the question of linguistic rights for those who already speak other languages.

Date: Sat, 6 May 2006
Subject: Re: German in American cities/was "Ger. by one vote"

So many language teachers are heritage learners of the broadest definition. I like to use a quote from John Webb as a definition. "A heritage language learner is someone who has an emotional connection to a language other than English." This includes all of us who were either exposed to other languages or exposed to stories of other languages. Do we become language teachers because of our proximity to other languages or could it be to fulfill some childhood yearning?

In my case, my mother and grandmother spoke Italian and my father understood what they were saying. My brothers and I were forbidden to speak Italian because both my parents were put in ‘retarded’ classes in public school because they spoke little English when they first attended school. When I played alone, however, I spoke in gibberish because I really wanted to be able to communicate in a different way.

BTW, my mother's oldest sister was sent to a catholic school and was taught in German instead of English! Where I lived, Germans were the established ethnic group and the Italians were the newcomers.

Lily Wong Fillmore has researched the emotional and academic consequences of losing one's heritage language. Foreign language teachers (and closet heritage speakers) should read her work to help them understand their students and, possibly, themselves. The quote below is from one of her most cited articles. It is referring to children, like Bob's youngest uncle, who gradually lose their ability to speak their family's language.

The Importance of Parent-Child Communication

“When parents are unable to talk to their children, they cannot easily convey to them their values, beliefs, understandings, or wisdom about how to cope with their experiences. They cannot teach them about the meaning of work, or about personal responsibility, or what it means to be a moral or ethical person in a world with too many choices and too few guideposts to follow. What is lost are the bits of advice, the consejos parents should be able to offer children in their everyday interactions with them. Talk is a crucial link between parents and children: It is how parents impart their cultures to their children and enable them to become the kind of men and women they want them to be. When parents lose the means for socializing and influencing their children, rifts develop and families lose the intimacy that comes from shared beliefs and understandings.” (Wong Fillmore, 1991, p. 343)

Wong Fillmore, L. (1991).

When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6, 323-346. In addition, this link explains the political, academic and social consequences of the English-Only movement.

English-Only Movement: Its Consequences on the Education of Language Minority Children. ERIC Digest.
Date: Sun, 30 Apr 2006 07:05:35 -0400
Subject: Re: Nuestro himno and right to strike

"Meeting teachers from abroad has given me the opportunity to know that I am lucky when I think about it. Imagine being in a country where you were not allowed to exercise your right to strike like my Argentinean and Serbian colleagues have told me."

The Taylor Law in New York State prohibits New York City teachers and other public employees from striking. We often wait years without a contract before the city agrees to a settlement that is not in our interests. This means we have some of the lowest pay scales, harshest working conditions and largest class sizes in the state. The New York City transit workers' union president, Roger, Toussaint, spent last week in jail for taking his union out on strike for 60 hours. The union was fined over 2.5 million dollars, dues check-off was lost for three months and each transit worker will lose two days pay for every day they were out on strike. And if that were not enough, the union still does not have a contract even though the last one expired in December!!!!