For several weeks now as I've been flipping through my essay anthologies my eye has been caught by the work of Richard Rodriguez. Rodriguez grew up in California, the son of working class Mexican immigrant parents. He had a Catholic education and was a "scholarship boy" who continued on to university. He seems to be known for his questioning of the effectiveness of affirmative action and bilingual education, the former causing him to give up an academic career in favor of writing. Although I read "Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Education" included in The Best American Essays of the Century, his work also appears in The Art of the Personal Essay. Philip Lopate notes the influence of George Orwell (must check out his essays soon I think) on Rodriguez and writes:
"Orwellian, certainly, are the interrogations of conscience and the attempt to write moral essays that combine personal honesty with a political and social dimension."
In "Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Education" Rodriguez draws heavily on his childhood experiences and writes what he knows. I don't know enough about bilingual education--pros and cons--to say exactly where I stand, but Rodriguez is certainly convincing in his argument against bilingual education. Although this essay is about language and education, he delves into what it means to be in the private and public spheres (when more than one language is involved), about family intimacy and how language can make us feel both separateness and belonging.
As a young child he spoke exclusively Spanish at home and recalls his older siblings returning from school, where they were learning English, and leaving their schoolbooks near the door. At home they would use their "family language". Although his parents coped well in this new country, they were still never totally at ease in public--Americans, los gringos, were the "others" distant from his family. The only people to come to their home were the many relatives of his family. "We were the people with the noisy dog, the people who raised chickens. We were the foreigners on the block."
When he went to school he was allowed only to speak English, yet it was a struggle for him. He was no longer Ricardo but Rich-heard! At home, however, he would resume his place in the family and hear the comforting sounds he was so familiar with.
"Plainly it is not healthy to hear such sounds so often. It is not healthy to distinguish public from private sounds so easily. I remained cloistered by sounds, timid and shy in public, too dependent on the voices at home."
There was a deep intimacy with his family, so at odds with the painful feeling of public alienation. His teachers were aware of his difficulties with the language, at the time it wasn't so much language to him as simply sounds, as well as the problems his older siblings also experienced, so they asked his parents to speak to him in English at home as well. As he became more sure of himself he learned to speak English and feel comfortable in the language--hearing words not just sounds. His parents ability to speak English, particularly his mother, also improved.
"Supporters of bilingual education imply today that students like me miss a great deal by not being taught in their family's language. What they seem to not to recognize is that, as a socially disadvantaged child, I regarded Spanish as a private language. It was a ghetto language that deepened and strengthened my feeling of public separateness. What I needed to learn in school was that I had the right, and the obligation, to speak the public language."
Of course becoming comfortable in this public sphere, learning this public language did not come without a cost. There was a certain sense of betrayal he felt and that was intimated by relatives that he had somehow committed a sin by learning and eventually only speaking this "public language". He was playfully called pocho ("someone who in becoming an American, forgets his native society"). In the long run, however, the he never lost that intimacy at home by learning and speaking English.
"Intimacy is not created by a particular language; it is created by intimates. Thus the great change in my life was not linguistic but social. If, after becoming a successful student, I no longer heart intimate voices as often as I had earlier, it was not because I spoke English instead of Spanish. It was because I spoke public language for most of my day. I moved easily at last, a citizen in a crowded city of words."
I'm afraid my post is an oversimplification of his ideas, as his argument was far more nuanced than what I'm trying to convey here. I suspect there are plenty of good arguments in favor of bilingualism, too, but it's hard to ignore the earnestness of his beliefs and experiences.
This essay was first published in The American Scholar in 1980.