"Language is the lightning rod of conflicts. I think there are several reasons. Language summons up lots of emotions. It's very tied to our identity. It's very tied to what we identify first and foremost as the anchor of our culture. So, it is no wonder that it elicits such emotions. And once those emotions spiral out of control very few of us want to give in and say, 'Wait a minute! OK, I'm being a little irrational. I was upset because I couldn't understand the lady at the cashier? And I thought she was talking about me or that was paying for her groceries.' And then I am also now saying that, 'Not only didn't she speak the language, but I think she was paying with food stamps for cigarettes!' You know, once those emotions take hold they take on a life of their own. And they become the lore and the myths that also join in our popular culture and our interpretations and our frames of how we want to talk about immigrants. So definitely language is an issue.
     "It's also objectively an issue when you have situations as in the schools that all of a sudden you have – and in many communities it was 'all of a sudden,' like overnight – you have a large number of kids who are speaking two, three, four different languages. In Omaha I know that people keep count, but there's over 20 different languages that are spoken in Omaha at schools. You have a very difficult situation in which you have to say, 'How am I going to deal with it? What resources do I have?' That's a different aspect. But I think what really gets the front billing in all of this is this notion of assimilation or lack of assimilation. And, 'They're not learning our language!' And language again becomes sort of the primary indicator, both of our culture and then of the distance of others from our culture.
     "Every immigrant that we've ever interviewed, every immigrant that has been interviewed in every national survey, every focus group that we have just had – the barrier that they see to their own integration into the community and their own capacity to be able to participate in civic and political spaces as well as in other institutions is language. It is the first thing they recognize."
     [Question:] "Are you saying they want to learn English?"
     "Absolutely. There aren't enough English as a Second Language classes. That's an integration effort that should have received first billing. If we're so worried about immigrants not learning English we need to be worried about whether they are provided opportunities to do so."
     "The fact is the first-generation adult working in low wage jobs – first-generation [immigrants] don't ever master English all that well. They won't, for the most part. [But], the more educated – the ones who are able to enter into jobs that are not double shifts or that have opportunities for learning English – those segments of that population will learn English and they have…
     "It is the second generation, the children of those immigrants, who are going to be primarily English speakers. And unfortunately, in this insistence that we fuel the fire of these anti-second-language environment, those kids are likely to abandon Spanish – or one of their Asian languages or some of their African languages – and become as monolingual as everyone else. Something we don't want today because in today's world as we all know if this has always not been the case, knowing more than one language, knowing more than two, has become really important to meet our expectations of the kind of life we want to live for better communication in the world, for better understanding of the United States with other countries, for avoiding wars perhaps through better diplomacy in languages of origin.
     "So today, you see, you know – Go stand in any corner of south Omaha and just watch the children come in – not just south Omaha but anywhere where you may see children, Latino children – and you will notice that they speak in English among themselves. They're already abandoning their language. So you know, this ridiculous scare that English is disappearing has no basis. This is, in fact on the contrary, English is a very powerful lingua franca [a working or bridge language] and is not going to disappear and it shouldn't disappear. But what also should not disappear is the possibility of doing bilingualism on the cheap.
     "Yes, speaking a common language is critical, but not necessarily at the expense of other languages. It shouldn't be 'English only,' it should be 'English plus.'"

Lourdes Gouveia – Immigration & Language


Excerpts from Lourdes Gouveia’s Interview:

Modern Immigration
A Nation of Immigrants
The New Wave
Immigration Slowing Down