Immigrant language learning

There was a interesting report on the radio this morning about helping immigrants in London to learn English. They interviewed a Bangladeshi woman who has lived in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, which has a large immigrant population, for over 20 years but who speaks very little English. She told the interviewer that on the rare occasions when she needs to communicate in English, she uses an interpreter. The rest of the time she speaks Bengali. She also said that there aren’t enough teachers of English as a Second Language in that area, a claim that a representative of the local council denied.

It’s interesting the way some immigrant communities hold on to their languages for many generations, while others abandon them within a generation or two.

Have you had any experience of this phenomenon?

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This entry was posted in English, Language, Language learning.

18 Responses to Immigrant language learning

  1. Weili says:

    It heavily depends on where the immigrant ends up living.

    For some ethnic groups, there are large communities for people who speak the same language, which helps in keeping their own language and culture, and/or preventing them from being assimilated into the mainstream culture, depending on how you view it.

    For example, here in Houston, we have a large Latino community and many people from Latin American never have to learn English to get around. The same goes for our large Vietnamese community as well.

  2. AR says:

    being part Armenian, i know people who live in “little armenia” in glendale, California (near Los Angeles). Many people who immigrate there (especially people over 30) never venture out of the community, and therefore they work in Armenian businesses and never learn english. in fact, when visiting relatives once, i encountered a Hispanic 5-year-old who spoke only Spanish and Armenian, not English.

    I do not think that the Bangladeshi lady has a valid point. There are several ways to learn a second language, one just has to try to look for them. She could even learn English from the people who interpret her Bangla for her.

    The resistance to learning english is becoming hotly debated here in America. Nowadays, many public places have notices and signs in Spanish as well as English, especially medical facilities. Both sides attack each other for imposing each other’s languages on others. I personally don’t care, as I am open to learning as many languages as I can.

  3. Edwin says:

    Here in Toronto, Canada, we have immigrants coming from different countries and maintaining their own cultures. But from my experience, I don’t see their second generations have problem speaking English. They usually have problems speaking their own languages.

  4. Chibi says:

    In my town (suburb of NYC), the town itself is 96% white. Therefore, everyone speaks English. Immigrants (should there be an occasion where we had any immigrants :P) would learn it quite easily, unless they stayed locked up in their house for 24 hours a day, even without a teacher; basically, it’s essential for everyday life, and one could pick up some English every time one went out to anywhere…

    As for the whole thing that AR was talking about in the second paragraph, I’m gonna admit that I agree with those who say that immigrants should (note the word choice: should. Not mandatory, but a suggestion) learn the language of the country; I feel like they are choosing to move to a country that speaks another language, and by learning that language, they would become a more active and involved part of the community. Of course, I don’t care at all what language they speak among themselves, but I feel that they should learn the country’s language if they want to live there. It may seem like conflicting views, but I feel that they shouldn’t give up their own culture, and continue speaking their own language, but I don’t feel like it should become necessary for signs and stuff like that to be bilingual in a country that mainly speaks English (true, there is technically no “official language” of America, but in general practice, English is the language used in government, etc.)

    I also agree with Edwin; from the bilinguals in my town (ranging from Mandarin to Italian, to German to Spanish to Portuguese to Macedonian…), most of them that I go to school with (usually first generation Americans, their parents immigrated) have no troubles at all with English, and in fact, some have told me that they prefer English to whatever language is spoken at home.

  5. Jamison says:

    In my conversations with Latin American immigrants to Minnesota (mostly Mexican), it largely depends on the age. The youth all learn English pretty quickly. The older generation (and with that I mean over 25 upon moving in), I’ve met that could not to a lick of English.

    In some of the small communities that have the town factory, I’ve met ones who have been in Minnesota for eight years and admit that they can’t keep a conversation rolling in English. They typically lead a quiet life: work, sleep, send money south. The manager knows enough Spanish to tell them what to do, and they do it. Ad that’s it. It definitely doesn’t have any ideological bent to it, they are just staying alive.

    I often encourage them (in Spanish) to have a plan to learn English, just to make their lives easier. It’s cold in Minnesota and life isn’t cheap here, surprising to many. I’ve met many who had great skills in Mexico and elsewhere, but can’t use them here because they don’t know the language.

    Again, no ideology, it just makes sense no matter where you are in the world. I think I know marketing, and can convince people here of it, but put me Moscow or Beijing or Paris or wherever, and I’ll be fortunate to be sweeping floors.

  6. Polly says:

    My position on language in the USA is this: English FIRST, but not English only.

    Ironically, I’m constantly trying to get immigrants to speak their native tongues instead of English with me. (Am I part of the problem?)

    But, I do get upset when I see that recent arrivals are not even TRYING to learn English. After all, living in the country of the target language offers tremendous advantages in learning. Much better than books or tapes.

    I wish we Americans would take foreign language seriously in school, too. So, it goes both ways. It frustrates me to see others’ indifference to communication.

    AR – I assumed you were Armenian for some reason. must be the “AR” But I bet your moniker has nothing to do with it.

  7. Ben L. says:

    Being the primary form of communication, it would seem using language is instrumental to personal enrichment.

  8. Geoff says:

    Whether it is American tourists in France or Latin Americans in the United States, it galls me when people go to another country and act as though the native inhabitants are the foreigners. If you’re spending more than a week in another country, it is simple courtesy to learn at least a few everyday phrases for basic communication, and for apologizing for not knowing the language better.

    Living in California, I know many Spanish speakers who also speak effective if imperfect English. I know others who always want to teach me a little more Spanish because they find it inconvenient to communicate with me in my native language in my own country.

    There is something topsy-turvy when we bemoan tourists who want the locals to know their language but look with sympathy and affection upon long-term immigrants to a country who can’t be troubled to learn the local language. Surely the long-term immigrant has a greater investment in learning to function in the language. Which is to say that both classes of people are denying themselves opportunities. The long-term immigrants are just denying themselves more opportunities.

    If it were up to me, everyone would speak the language of the country they’re living in, so that they could participate fully in society. And everyone would be at least familiar with one other language so that they would know that not all the world works or thinks with the same assumptions as the culture they’re in at the moment. But it’s not my choice. It’s the choice of, eg, the Bangladeshi woman. I do wish she would choose differently. But if she believes the inconveniences involved in learning English are greater than the inconveniences involved in not knowing English, that is her choice and the consequences, too, will be hers.

    In my work, I meet a certain number of people whose bosses have sent them to learn English and who don’t themselves see the need. Experience suggests that even extensive private tutoring according to their own personal schedules doesn’t take them very far. Like Polly, I am frustrated to see others’ indifference to communication. But those who do not wish to communicate will not do so. Truly sad.

  9. In the small village of Pomerode – in the state of Santa Catarina in Brasil – there have been living several generations of Pomeranian immigrants, who not only spoke German among themselves (there being very few “outsiders” in town), but did speak practically no Portuguese. What is more, their German was the Pomeranian dialect, now extinct in Pomerania – which is no longer germanophonic, but rather a province of Poland called Pomorze.

    We thus had the phenomenon of a community who spoke an extinct dialect of a living language – a regular linguistic fossil! – and had difficulty communicating with people from outside. The situation no longer exists with the same intensity, as the road to Blumenau – the nearest city, itself containing a large proportion of German speakers – has been improved. But you still find (older) people in the region who state in all seriousness: “No Brasil todo mundo fala alemão” (“In Brasil everyone speaks German”)!

  10. I hope this doesn’t seem too rude, but I find the idea of moving to a country and refusing to learn its language to be quite disrespectful–and it also does a disservice to any children they have who will grow up in the new country and need to live as part of its society. If I moved to Germany, for instance, I would make very sure I learned German beforehand and if I was still having problems after getting settled in, I’d take classes or ask for help or whatever I needed to make sure I got to an acceptable level of fluency.

    That said, though, I think there are some things that natives of a country should do in order to make a more encouraging environment for people to learn. First, they should never treat people badly because of, say, halting English, but show respect and offer polite assistance. Second, they should show interest in the immigrants’ language and culture. This is not so that the immigrant then has no need to speak the country’s native language, but a simple mark of respect. After all, iI think people learn best and FEEL best when they also feel like they have something worth sharing and what they know isn’t just being erased.

    I also agree with what Polly says that Americans (is it the same with other English-speaking countries?) don’t take foreign language education seriously enough. I think schoolchildren in English-speaking countries should start their foreign language education early so that they have an appreciation of other languages–though I don’t think they should feel obliged to replace their native language in their own country.

  11. Alain Vaillancourt says:

    Yes, In North America the Chinese and Italian communities hold on to their language and their culture for several generations, and they do so consistently and in large numbers, more so than other communities, who lose this after two or three generations. They also learn English though, despite the presence of large numbers who speak their own language.

  12. Osman says:

    In Germany, there are lots of Turkish people and they go on talking in Turkish as well as in German. But some of the immigrants’ children’s Turkish don’t sound correct. Since their speech muscles are mostly shaped according to German language (apparently), they can’t pronounce some words well. But it is interesting that some German people started to speak German like Turkish people. Their accents are a bit different. It is what i know from my friends. Maybe it is not true to generalize this.

  13. Joe says:

    In response to Alain’s comment, I’m a fourth-generation Italian-American and I have to disagree with his comment about Italians holding onto their language for several generations. Hardly anyone I know that is Italian-American speaks Italian fluently and as a language learned in the home. All of us have learned it as a second (or third, or fourth) language out of interest in our culture.

    I can also attest that Italian use in the home was dying by the second generation of Italian-Americans, in large part due to pressures of WWII and the desire at the time to integrate completely into American society. Being bilingual was thought to hamper your ability to integrate. One friend of the family whose parents themselves came from Italy actually halted the use of Italian in the home after a nun at her Catholic school chastised the parents for using anything but English.

    I personally have no problem with bilingualism, I wish my family had been able to hold onto its language, for example, but at the same time I understand why it didn’t. Some relatives of mine immigrated from Italy to Brazil (Brazil has an enormous Italian community, particularly in the states of São Paulo and Santa Catarina) but the same thing happened; all the Italian-Brazilians of the current generation I know speak Portuguese as their first language and if they know Italian at all it’s because they chose to learn it as a second language.

    I was watching MTV Tr3s the other evening and they have little commercial clips of famous latino artists talking about their culture and heritage, and there was one female latina artist who I can’t recognize, but she was encouraging the continuation of the use of Spanish, but alongside English, saying that multiculturalism and bilingualism is a beautiful thing.

    This is a relatively new idea, it’s apparently more common to Canada than it is to the United States, where we had a longer history of “melting pot” versus “salad bowl” Yet I think there is a bit of resentment from established Americans of any ethnicity toward the newer latin immigrants because most of us feel that our ancestors sacrificed their language in the name of integrating into American society, and we expect newcomers today to do the same.

    I live in Florida and I went to Miami for the first time a year ago, and I was completely shocked how Spanish was essentially the predominant language there. It honestly felt like a foreign country, and even hispanic friends of mine joked that Miami is more like “Cuba Annex”

    In any case, the issue of linguistic integration is a very serious one, and living in a state on the front-line of the issue, it’s interesting to observe how easy it is today for someone to not need to know English to get by. Major store chains have bilingual sinage and their automated checkout lines can speak to you en español. I really find it amusing when stores even go out of their way to translate “Push” and “Pull” and “Thank You” into Spanish. If a person can’t learn after one try what push and pull means, that’s sad. So basically American society is making it incredibly easy to not need English.

    Yet at the same time I have to stress that some of the loudest opposition to this situation that I’ve heard has come from my Spanish-speaking friends, who think that when you live in the United States a priority should be to speak in English. I went to Miami with a friend of mine who is from Spain and he was absolutely appalled that Spanish was everywhere. A friend from Colombia stated the same.

    Wow, for my first comment here, quite a long one!

  14. Joe–about the point that many of our ancestors sacrificed our languages…mine had to, and I wish they hadn’t. My grandfather, a first-generation American was told as a little boy not to speak Frisian anymore, and he no longer remembers any of it. My German ancestors also lost their language, and I imagine there was political pressure due to the world wars to do so.

    I actually feel a very real sadness about those losses, and it’s not my reason for wanting people to learn English. I think people should keep their native languages but also be fluent in that of the country where they live. In fact, isn’t multilingualism good for the brain?

  15. Polly says:

    Joe – “I’m a fourth-generation Italian-American”

    When do we stop counting? I never hear, “I’m a 12th generation Anglo-Saxon-American” Even the Irish and Scottish generally don’t hyphenate once the “accent” is gone.

    I know you’re just pointing it out as it’s relevant to what you’re saying. It just sounded funny and got me thinking.

    BTW – I’m only 1st generation American born. But, I don’t use the hyphenated nationality terminology. Also, my parents only spoke English at home. My wife, on the other hand, isn’t a native and wasn’t allowed to speak English at home when she was young, only Armenian. But, here’s the funny thing…she has no accent! Neither does her OLDER brother. It must be a gift/talent.

    Minstrel Ayreon – I have every intention, if I ever have kids, to raise them bilingual for exactly that reason. What they do with it will be up to them. It is a sad thing for Americans to be monolingual when so many of us are descended from immigrants.

  16. renato says:

    Ronald, don’t forget the Itallians who live in Rio Grande do Sul state who only speak Venetian. This Italian dialect it isn’t spoke in Italy for a long time. Including today the name of the language they speak is “Vêneto Sul Rio Grandense”, or Southern Rio Grande do Sul Venetian, with grammar, radio programm, and theater play Naneto Pipeta.
    When I was at Journalism School in 80’s There was a girl in my class whose parent’s where from Hungary, and she told us that as their parents didn’t talk Portuguese, because there wasn’t many hungarian inmigrants in Brazil, she had to translate everything her parents wanted. So when she went to school she had to learn only Portuguese, and passes hating her parent’s language. Maybe this also occurs with new inmigrants in England too.

  17. Joe says:

    Polly- I know exactly where you’re getting at; I was indeed just declaring that as a fact to show I was speaking from experience as a member of the “Italian diaspora” or whatever you want to call it. My heritage being completely mixed, including Irish and Scottish, I have to say that Irish-Americans still do like to hyphenate. I don’t see it as often with Scottish-Americans or German-Americans, but the Irish do stay quite proud of their heritage as a whole.

    I’ve really noticed a larger pattern of people hyphenating themselves on the whole. I don’t think this even happened in my mother’s generation, but as of late, perhaps with the advent of the internet and the accessibility to research the family tree and so on, people are getting more in touch with their roots. I know I definitely am closer to my cultural roots than my parents were; I was shocked to find how little the family’s history was talked about, and this was when my own immigrant ancestors were still alive.

  18. Polly says:

    People implicitly presume that American culture is an oxymoron. So, in order to find a culture they have to go back. It’s natural to want to know what your ancestors did. After all, though America is MY country, my ancestors weren’t signing the delcaration of Independence or fighting in the civil war. They were somewhere else (doing God knows what :-D) Even natives of other countries, I’m sure, look to their folkloric traditions when they feel nostalgic. That’s why Coca-Cola sells 6oz. glass bottles for a hefty markup.

    Something in us drives us to look back even as we’re propelled forward.