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Friday, March 27, 2009 | To Ana Celia Zentella, you are what you speak. Zentella, a professor emerita of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego, has studied how languages shape our identities for decades, focusing on the role of language in Latino families.

She glories in bilingual wordplay, decries “Hispanophobia” and English-only laws, and sees saving languages and the cultures that come with them as a social justice issue.

Zentella recently edited “Multilingual San Diego: Portraits of Language Loss and Revitalization,” a volume that includes 12 chapters written by her students on the languages that make up San Diego, from Kumeyaay to Korean.

You quote a researcher who calls San Diego a graveyard for languages. Why? Is that worse in San Diego than in other cities that you’ve studied?

It’s actually not worse because of the proximity to the border, which helps keep Spanish alive a little longer — but not into the third generation. A lot of second generation members of families of Mexican origin do speak Spanish or can at least understand it, but the farther you get from the border, the more loss you find.

Even in San Diego, the great majority of the grandchildren of immigrants cannot speak to their grandparents in their immigrant language. And if the grandparents only speak that language because they haven’t been here that long or because their English is weak, then there is a real breakdown in a family when particular respect patterns or cultural norms are ignored or violated by the third generation.

How else are children affected, children who grow up in households not speaking English — how are they affected by the attitudes about Spanish and other languages?

It’s pretty devastating to grow up ashamed of your mother’s English and the accent that she has. And we see that is particularly leveled at certain groups. If your mother speaks with a French accent there may be some joking about it, but it doesn’t communicate the same lower class devaluation that speaking Spanish often does, and the same racial opprobrium. These young people are really faced with a diminished sense of self.

Not all of them. Some manage to overcome it. I was just talking to a young man an hour ago who said that he laughed at his parents’ English and then, because he was born himself in Mexico, he said, “I realize that I laugh at myself too. Because it’s my accent too.” But he has more of an advanced academic vocabulary than they do because he’s been through advanced classes in English. And so that makes somewhat of a difference.

But there’s a terrible pull. On the one hand I’ve met some Latino parents who say, “Look at my wonderful little daughter, she only speaks English, isn’t that wonderful?” There aren’t that many of them, but those folks have learned the power of English, and have decided that they didn’t want to hamstring their children with this language that they feel has kept them out of good jobs and out of good apartments. I think that’s a really unfortunate choice and those children learn that later on. But the parents think that’s what the larger Anglo society wants to see.

I think it’s an unfair and damaging exchange — give me your language and your culture and take only the English and the North American culture and that is what proves that you are a worthy citizen, a worthy resident. It is not a fair bargain and it doesn’t work. There are many African Americans and Native Americans in the United States who have no language other than English. … It hasn’t always meant that the doors of certain jobs and neighborhoods have been open to them.

You’ve been spending a lot of time with a group of teenagers who cross the border (frequently) and I was curious, what have you learned about them and the way they see their identities through the way they speak?

These are kids who no longer cross the border every day for the most part, but they go back and forth to visit family at least every week. I’ve learned that there are very many different groups, even in an area like the border region. You can’t paint the same picture for everybody.

It’s really striking. In the same family I interviewed one sister who is very adamant about the need to keep Spanish and English very separate, and yet was caught up in her own contradictions when she said that the best thing about going away to school was that she was going to meet a lot of new people from different backgrounds and she loved to see these mixes and couples and all of that. And I said, “You know, there are people who don’t like to see those mixes just like you don’t like to see the Spanish-English mix.” They see them as similar — crossing boundaries that are either racial or linguistic.

Her sister had a very different attitude in a separate interview. She said that she saw the alternation of Spanish and English as the reality of living on the border and a reflection of the duality of the cultures that these young people participate in — a more graphic representation of who they are, and not a deterioration of either Spanish or English, since most of these kids can speak English to a monolingual if they need to do that and Spanish to someone who only speaks Spanish if they need to do that.

Have you found that attitudes within the world of education have changed about bilingual teaching or bilingual classes?

I wish I could say that that were the case. Do you mean in San Diego?

Yeah — maybe over the past decade?

I have to say that I haven’t seen any movement to bring back bilingual education as there should be. I’m not seeing any grassroots movement. I do see people looking for play groups for their child in German or the Asian groups really trying to keep their kids in Saturday schools, but a public commitment to bilingualism for the masses is not around. I don’t see that flourishing. … It is not something that is considered part of a solid, basic education in the United States or San Diego. Nobody in Europe or Africa would consider you educated if you only spoke one language.

Your newest book expands from Spanish to a number of different languages. Were there things that surprised you or were lessons for you as you edited the book?

I was surprised to see that there were some communities, very large communities like the Tagalog community and the Vietnamese community, that I think most people know very little about, and the extent to which language is so linked to the transgenerational transmission of cultural values and the impact in families when those are lost, and how painful that is — and this is not something I’ve written about — but the implications for the suicide rates in the Filipino community, for example, are in part linked to this cultural and generational breakdown.

I’m also interested in the role of religious organizations and how they’ve been trying to fill a gap in a lot of these communities, whether it’s a Japanese temple or the Hebrew shuls and the Catholic churches. They’re all struggling with ways to help their members, the members of their congregations, really participate in the larger, wider community but also be able to practice their faith in the language that brings them closest to their God.

… But I think the other institutions really need to step up their commitment to this issue, particularly the public schools. There’s no substitute for that.

Where are some of the places that you see hope or possibly solutions to the problem of language loss?

You see it in the extent to which students — at least these students down here — are not as ashamed of speaking both languages. They all say that they want their children to be bilingual. I think they’re being unrealistic about it. I don’t think they understand how difficult that is and how many people thought they were going to raise bilingual children and didn’t realize what an uphill swim that is. How it’s going against the current. And what they would have to put in place to make that happen.

Especially because they have no restrictions on who they see as a possible partner in the future, as the mother or father of their children. They refuse to say, “No, I’ll only go out with someone who speaks Spanish.” They have this illusion that they’ll be able to teach that person Spanish so that spouse could talk to their family. Even the sense that that would be a problem doesn’t seem daunting to them. They’re very sure that that can happen. I haven’t seen it happen very often, so I’m much more pessimistic about that.

What do you think it does take to raise a genuinely bilingual child?

I know it takes at least 30 hours of input in that language a week to the child. And that means that you have to make sure that someone is speaking to them in that other language and they’re not just going to be hearing isolated words. I tell these young people, “I’ll check with you in five or 10 years and see if your child knows more than the word for juice and milk in the other language, or ‘give me this’ or ‘give me that.’”

Really being a speaker means being exposed to the language in different settings, taking them to a church that functions in that language so they hear a formal discourse from the pulpit, taking them to all kinds of family events. … That’s not easy to do. You have to have a really strong plan. It’s possible — but if you go into it thinking, “I speak Spanish, so my child will speak Spanish” that won’t happen.

What do you feel will ultimately be lost if these languages are completely lost?

Well, we all think it’s unlikely that Spanish will be lost in the Americas for a while, although it is being lost in the U.S.-born generations rapidly, or that Japanese or Korean are going to be lost. But we do know that Kumeyaay is a few deaths away from extinction. And we know that Mixtec and many other native languages in Mexico are near extinction. And we know that each one of these languages has a lot to contribute about seeing the world in a different way. The reality that they face may be the same, but speaking from different languages will interpret that reality in different ways.

And that tells us a lot about the way the human brain works. It tells us a lot about possible solutions to problems, be they social or even mathematical or scientific. We need all of those ways of thinking. So when you lose a language you lose another way of seeing the world and another interpretation of facts. We could put it in terms of biodiversity. … People say, “Well, why do you care about the gray-tailed cockatoo?” or whatever. And we know that the biodiversity of the planet is essential to its continued thriving. The linguistic diversity is also very important.

And on the local level for one family, for one person, it is devastating. I have tape recordings of my brother-in-law who died fairly young and his children cannot understand it. They knew him and loved him in English. And they missed, I think, two thirds of the man, because he was born and raised in another country, spoke Spanish and they’re missing a lot of who their father was. And that to me is a personal tragedy.

— Interview by EMILY ALPERT

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