I often meet people, my age or older, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. and intentionally avoided teaching their offspring their native language, believing that it would both inhibit their child’s ability to learn English and interfere with their assimilation into American culture. Every one of these now grown “children” expresses regret that they didn’t learn their family’s native tongue.
How times have changed. We now understand that, especially for young children, learning two or more languages is not only possible, but developmentally advantageous. Immigration laws have changed. Our world, too, is smaller. Once upon a time, people boarded a ship knowing they would never see their home country again. They were forced to cut all ties and make a home in the place they landed. Now, we are a Facebook or FaceTime exchange away; we can hop on a plane and be almost anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours, and we can easily find others like us wherever we are: just Google a meet-up group for whatever suits you.
We don’t have a standard definition for what “First” or “Second-generation American” means. Is the first generation the one that did the immigrating? Or the first generation born in the U.S.? As for the term “assimilation,” multiple studies aim to determine how immigrants are assimilating but struggle over how to define what assimilation actually means. Do we measure it by learning English (or the native language of whatever country is being examined)? By civic participation – becoming a citizen, becoming involved in some way? By cultural participation? Did your kids dress up for Halloween? Did you stuff yourself with turkey and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, then cheer on your football team while indulging in pumpkin pie smothered in whip cream from a can? Some studies look at economic achievement: jobs, home ownership. Others attempt to examine patriotism. Even more difficult to define: do immigrants feel American? And what does that mean, when even the idea of the “typical” American can vary so much, depending upon what region of the U.S. we are considering? What exactly is the essence of Americanism? Or being French?
Most bicultural or non-American families I know raising children today diligently work to make sure their children know their native cultures and native languages. They fear their children will grow up unable to communicate with family back home, or unfamiliar with what to our friends is so familiar. They embrace many of the traditions and culture of their chosen American home, yet they actively retain their own cultures as well. For us, in our French-American home, the blend is mostly easy. We both already celebrated Easter and Christmas. For my husband, Halloween and Thanksgiving are fun new holidays (though no self-respecting Frenchman would ever stuff himself silly. As for American football… he’s making valiant efforts at appreciating the sport). I had no issue with long meals full of visiting and drinking wine more often. We were both happy to have an extra holiday in July for fireworks and barbeques. Sometimes I think we should move to France just so we can enjoy May, where public holidays mean a month of, well, joie de vivre, and August, where the whole country goes South for vacation.
The challenge for most of us remains teaching our children the second, non-English language. In San Diego, multicultural families surrounded us. One time at the playground, I counted seven different languages being spoken. Seven. We were the norm there – multilingual, multicultural. Here, in Colorado, I rarely hear a foreign language. And for the first time, I feel self-conscious when I speak to my kids in French. People stop and stare. I assume it is because it is so, well, foreign here.
We have no doubt our kids will learn English. With our American family, school, me, and peers, they’ll have plenty of exposure. Unlike many of the families from generations past, we desperately want our kids to speak French and to know their French heritage. We hope they are proud of their unique cultural make up. We hope they can feel at home, that they will have a sense of belonging, in the U.S. and in France. It’s the changing face of our world – a multilingual, multicultural, small world. Where we embrace rather than disconnect from our heritage, where we are proud to speak another language, where diversity is a beautiful, colorful thing.