The Unfinished Bridge

Photo: Andrea Schaffer
Photo: Andrea Schaffer

I've seen it so many times.

As I'm sure you do, I know quite a few people who are second generation immigrants to the US. Many are Hispanic, but there are lots of other ethnic and linguistic groups represented. And one of the saddest things I see is when the children speak only English. For whatever reason, the parents stopped speaking their native tongue with the children at some point.

Few would question, of course, the necessity of learning English in order to succeed in the US or any other English-speaking country. But how many parents have unwittingly deprived their children of an entire dimension of their cultural heritage by not raising them bilingually. A bridge unfinished. This is poignantly depicted in this story from PRI's The World in Words. I encourage you to take a listen.

Of course, it's easy for me to judge these people from the outside looking in. I've never felt the extreme pressure to fit in that prevents so many from speaking their native tongue. Many immigrants my age and older came over with parents who were determined that their children would assimilate into mainstream American culture as quickly as possible, so they even stopped speaking their native tongue at home. (In more recent times, it seems the parents tend to maintain their mother tongue more than in previous generations, in such a way that a native Spanish speaker can live an entire lifetime in the US without learning English. That's for another post.) Or sometimes it happened more naturally over a longer period of time. English began to replace the original family language because that's what was happening just outside the front door.

Take my sister-in-law, for example. She is a fourth generation Mexican American. Her parents were both perfectly bilingual and spoke mostly Spanish to the older children. But by the time the younger children came along, including my sister-in-law, the family conversations had morphed into mostly English, with only occasional Spanish words thrown in.

As a result, my sister-in-law was not confident enough in her Spanish to speak it with her own children, who she and my brother would have liked to grow up bilingually. Her two children, my nephew and niece, both look Hispanic, with piercing dark eyes, so many Hispanics address them in Spanish, only to be told they don't speak it.

But the PRI story doesn't stop there, laying the blame squarely on the parents for the fact that their children are monolingual. The child also has choices, as the narrator recognizes at the end. So he goes from saying, "OK, Dad, why did you kill Spanish in our family?" to "OK, I'm the one who killed it." So began his own journey to learning the language of his ancestors.

Do you have a similar story? Or a variation? Tell us about it!