An observation.

Immigration/emigration – the notion that a person, a related group of people, or some large percentage of people of an area should leave the lands in which he/she/they have lived in for generations and take up residence in a different part of the world where a different people who likely speak a different language and are of a different cultural tradition– is as ancient as civilization itself. The difference between immigration and invasion is only one of scale –numbers of “immigrants.” When numbers are high, violence tends to follow. However, violence, invasions and mass movements of people is not precisely our topic today.

Our topic today is the linguistics of immigration –and I have a question regarding this topic. What are the social variables that best predict whether immigrants will ensure that their children can speak the language of the homeland?

Undoubtedly, a large percentage of children of immigrants do gain some command of their parents’ “mother tongue.” Yet, as the literature must suggest (I have not read much) the language that children of immigrants often learn is a limited form, not easily used in business or school or law –a home language. Certain, in my experience this is what I have observed among many of the children of Central American immigrants living in the Bay Area of California. Even more interestingly this is what I noticed was the case of the Ladino speakers of Istanbul. Both groups must resort to code-switching (the use of a second language in the normal stream of speech) and borrowing of words (the use of foreign words for words missing [or forgotten] in a particular language).

A picture of Syrians arriving in Chicago on modern “skyboats” AKA airplanes.

As I mentioned, I have not done any research into this matter, nor have I collected any data, nor even could I say that I can rely on a “personal empiricism” regarding the matter. Having hedged sufficiently, it occurs to me that there are some predictions that can be made. Parents who work in the upper echelons of society (the upper class, upper middle class) likely send their kids to special schools to make sure that their children will be able to work in both languages. I know that most of the Polish and German Jewish immigrants of the last century actively kept their children from learning Polish, Yiddish and even German.

The other day, I went to tutor a child who lives in Foster City –a housing development built on the shores of the San Francisco Bay that has all the charm of the suburbs of the Stepford Wives. The parents (and the multitude of other relatives who lived in the large suburban home) were of South-West Indian origin and spoke Kannada and Hindi as well as (smatterings) of Tamil and other smaller languages). Yet the child himself could not really form sentences in Kannada or any other language “from the old country.” As evidence against my prediction the father works in the software industry and as such would nominally be put at least in the “middle class” of the Bay Area. Having said this I should point out that I saw no Tesla or other electric car parked in the driveway.

Being a functional bilingual –one who can read, write, speak, and joke in a more than one language is a major economic asset. This I take to be axiomatic. In our “operationlization” of the word “bilingual” we consider a person to be bilingual if they can participate in every aspect of society, with little difficulty, as any other adult who has been formally educated can do. Education itself, being a cultural construct, can have many interpretations. When I think of the idea I think of educated as one who has attended university. However this criterion may not be appropriate for all languages.

One term I wish to mention, though only as an afterthought, is that of “heriatage speaker.” This is a term used in the Second Language Learning (SLA) subfield of linguistics. It refers to people who do speak immigrant parents’ native language but not like thay do and not the way they would have had they grown up back in the “old country.”

I want to direct the readers of this post to the sources of the photographs I used.

Chicago Reader