Myths of melting pots and discarded tongues (part 2)

In my last post, I looked at a story told by a US Senator about how his family immigrated to the United States and learned English.  I wrote that I think the stories we tell reveal a lot about how we think the world should work.  In other words, these stories tell us a lot about our ideologies.  Working from this assumption, I claimed that the Senator and his story simplified the process of language learning in order to present it as a choice.  In the logic of the story, immigrants choose their languages.  For the Senator and others like him, choosing the “right” language (English) is equated with choosing to belong in the US, and choosing the “wrong” language (anything other than English) is resisting membership in the US.

I want to look now at an editorial I found from a newspaper in a small California city: Santa Maria.  In this article, the idea of a so-called “melting pot” seems to establish expectations that immigrants conform to an unnamed “us”.  So let’s take a look at the editorial, titled “Is it a melting pot, or a salad bowl?”; you can read it in full here.  The article contains a number of interesting stories of language learning some of which I’d like to examine.  Here is the first part:

Immigrants coming here in the early 1900s were joining a melting pot of humanity, where everyone blended together.

People from Germany, China or Brazil all had to learn English, since there were no accommodations for any other language. Children of immigrants usually spoke their parents’ native language until they entered school, where they were immersed in the English language. That enabled assimilation into the American culture.

The author of this story portrays the immigration waves of the early 1900s as one in which “everyone” blended together.  Of course, the accuracy of this aside (and in my last post I pointed out that our ancestors were probably far less quick about learning English than we imagine), we can also think about what this metaphor is really saying.

What does it mean to “blend together”?  There could be multiple interpretations of this.  Not considering this particular article, if you asked me to describe what a society in which different groups of people had “blended together” would look like in terms of language, I would say that either the people were mostly multilingual or that they all now spoke a language that fairly equally combined elements of the various languages represented (beyond simply a few loan words for things like foods).

However, this does not seem to be what the author means by “blending together” in this article.  Rather, in this case the “blend” seems to result in a mixture that no longer contains the other languages at least not beyond the first generation.  It’s a rather curious mixture — one in which no matter how much of the other ingredients you add, you still taste only English.

What is interesting to see is how the author compares her portrayal of the past more ideal situation of immigrant language learning with what she claims is the current reality.

Now it seems we have become a salad bowl, where immigrants retain their native language and customs, and are not assimilated into American culture.

Here in Santa Maria, where Latinos represent 70.4 percent of the population, we are accommodating the Spanish language. Eighty-three percent of students at El Camino Junior High, 57 percent at Fesler, and 49 percent at Kunst are considered English language learners.

According to the author, today’s immigrants do not meet the expectation of “blending together”.  Instead, they “retain their native language and customs”.  What I  find most striking here is that the author puts forth a complaint about how Hispanic immigrants are no longer blending in to “American culture” in the first sentence or to the unspecified “we” in the second sentence.  Interestingly according to this author, this English-speaking “we” has to accommodate Spanish in a community that is populated primarily with Spanish speakers.  Who is this “we” then?  Apparently “we” is not the majority of the people in this community.  Rather, “we” is the (presumably mostly White) English-speaking minority who rather than “blending together” and speaking Spanish, instead wish to impose what is essentially a minority language (English) on the majority (the Spanish speakers).

The point that I think this article illustrates is that the “common sense” idea of the “melting pot”, suggests a natural and perhaps harmonious process of cultures and languages coming into contact with one another and mixing to form either new hybrid languages and cultures or pluralistic communities where multiple languages and cultures exist at once.  What is clear, however, is that for the author the resulting melted mixture should not be a blend (beyond any type of superficial multiculturalism like celebrating a different holiday) but rather is a reproduction of an unnamed “we”, which clearly represents (White) English-speaking US residents.

Perhaps we need a new metaphor.  The author of the article I looked at suggests a “salad bowl”, but it’s apparently a salad of only English (with some tolerance of non-European holidays and foods).  I guess then the appropriate metaphor is a nice bountiful salad being consumed by a 5-year-old who doesn’t like vegetables.  All of the tomatoes, olives, onions, etc. end up off the plate, and all you have left is iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing.

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Posted in Human migration

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