Immigrants and Am attitudes toward fl

Much is made of the obstacle presented by American attitudes toward fl. It is said that if Americans were more like Europeans, learning a fl would be expected of everyone. Well, that’s not so easily done. Just my own experiences tell me that this is a tangled phenomenon.

In my own family, the people on my mom’s side had only German as their model of a fl. My aunt married a man (and then divorced him) whose sisters I remember sitting on the porch speaking German. I think their names were Madie, Elsie, and another. In fact, about the time my aunt was a child, around 1910, German was used as a language of instruction in public schools in parts of the country. WW I crushed that.

But on my dad’s side, everyone spoke Italian. My grandfather came to the U.S. in 1904. My dad spoke only Italian until he started school. He always had a lot of respect for the language and made it clear that he spoke only dialect, not what he called the “legal language”. Yet he treated his dialect (Abruzzese) with great respect. Even in his eighties, he said he’d sit around with his golfing buddies and argue about how to say things, each contributing something from his own dialect. Unfortunately, he taught me only a few words (nu bog for un poco). I was told by Italians at the vendor exhibits at ACTFL that few people speak the dialect any more, everyone having been to school learning standard Italian. I’ll bet that’s an exaggeration.

Two experiences with children of immigrants are instructive. Back in the 60s I was working with a retired Air Force colonel and he mentioned he spoke Polish as a child in Chicago. I spoke a word or two to him and he wanted to know if I was Polish. I explained how I had learned some from a book. A book??? He exclaimed. Polish is written? I was shocked but he was more shocked when I brought a little Polish grammar book to work and showed it to him. He was amazed that this language was written and more so that anyone would be interested enough in it to write a book on it.

Conversations ensued and it turned out he had the same attitude a lot of immigrants’ children had in those days: the Old Country language is associated with ignorance and poverty, ethnic enclaves whose main purpose seemed to be to serve as a spur to get out and assimilate. The home language was seen as only the gibberish of old people who were c ompletely out of touch with the exciting society around them and given to eating smelly foods with weird names.

Deeper motives to forget or deny the home language appeared about 10 years later when I was an advisor at a youth camp. The campers were 16 and the emphasis was on getting along with people of different “cultures”. The basis was actually to forge better relations between White Christians and people of other ethnicities and religions, with the focus on Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Jews, Mormons, and Asians. (a quick aside: Mormons are Christians but they form almost a separate ethnic group here in Arizona). Culture Night was the culmination of this experience and it had always featured presentations by the aforementioned groups (except the Mormons) displaying their music, dances, foods, clothing, etc. of their culture. However, White Anglo Christians were just spectators.

So I determined to mine what I felt to be a trove of ethnic identities among the White kids. I was right. Once I began polling them, I got Greeks, Lebanese, Italians, Germans, Norwegians, Ukranians, Rumanians, and so forth. They knew the languages, the music and dance, the foods, etc. An addendum to the above introduction is that some respect for the Old Country language was often instilled by the church and it was and continues to be taught in these churches.

Other than a group of about 20 kids (there were 120 or so overall in the camp) who called themselves Heinz 57 for not knowing of a specific ethnicity they derived from (and they formed their own group and put on a hilarious skit), the White kids, hithertofore considered “non-ethnic”, put on great skits. But up until the last moment, one girl refused to identify her ethnicity yet would not join the Heinz 57 group. Not only that, but her attitude seemed dark and disturbed.

So I went back to her several times, making sure she knew it was OK not to participate since the other kids were excitedly creating their skits. Eventually, she broke down, actually cried, explaining that her family was split between Croat-speakers and German-speakers. She was a bit comforted on realizing that I knew what Croatian was. She said family gatherings always ended in horrible fights and she hated anything to do with ethnicity. She wanted to participate in culture night but couldn’t think of anything positive to say or do. I suggested she speak to the reasons people left the Old Country, citing this sort of conflict as one of them. She did so, movingly, and that generated some discussion in the camp. This camp, Anytown, is sponsored by the National Council of Christians and Jews.

Let me suggest that ethnic awareness is vital to the success of teachers working with multi-ethnic populations, which is now most teachers. The Neoconservative movement has sought to demonize multiculturalism and teachers must be aware of these attacks and their distorted view of of what it means to teach multiculturalism, respect for one’s own culture (the colonel of Polish descent who loved telling gross Polish jokes) and for others’ cultures.

Let’s not kid ourselves, those old ethnic groups from the turn of the last century, my grandparents’ immigration cohort, did not “get along just fine” as many people will tell you. There was a good deal of shame, rejection, and despair over ethnic identity, not to mention a good deal of discrimination. Invidious comparisons are made between current immigrants and the “old” immigrants, usually made by the children and grandchildren of the old immigrants who believe all the rosy pictures painted by movies and Norman Rockwell.

People like me are labeled negative or too serious when we insist on the truth about immigrantion, slavery, segregation, genocide, expropriation of property, and so on. Too bad. We will just keep rubbing people’s noses in the truth. It wasn’t all roses and it didn’t always turn out well. That’s why we need to do it better this time around.

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