Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Lifting the lamp beside the golden door

We've taken up some readings in our textbook on immigration in my 1res (junior) classe. It’s an interesting topic because it invites a range of perspectives, French and American, contemporary and historical among others. Also, there is no shortage of Englis language political cartoons available on the subject, especially the “wall” going up on the Mexican border.

People here are intrigued and a bit mystified by this concept. Their most immediate historical association with a wall is of course the Berlin Wall which is not, I presume, the one intended by American policymakers. It also true that Europeans are no strangers to the subject of regulating borders and controlling immigration, but it’s just that America has for so long enjoyed such iconic status as a land of immigrants. Remember the inscription on the Statue Liberty (I don’t have it memorized word perfect but this is pretty close, I think):

Give me you tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse from your teeming shore.

give me your homeless, tempest-tost,

I lift the lamp beside the golden door.

This expresse an image of America that Americans have long basked in and to varying degrees tried to embody, but there's always been a big difference between poetry and government policy.

I’ve found some interesting potical cartoons from 19th century American papers raising alarms about the floodtide of Irish immigrants (the other group most often depicted is the Chinese) threatening American jobs and cultural values, both civic and religious. In these cartoons the Irish are depicted as bomb-toting, knife wielding, drunken savages who worship at strange altars. hmmm….sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

We established some basic terms, illegal and legal immigrants, documents, papers, refugees. We listed the standard reasons given for immigration….escape from poverty, hunger, and/or danger. The hope of a better life.

I alluded to my own family tree and the fact that a few generations back, my own family claimed immigrant origin from Ireland…perhaps even illegal immigrants at that. When I asked my students who among them could also claim immigrant family ties, several hands went up, somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the class.

I drew a map of the border region dividing Mexico and the U.S. I talked to them about the proximity but also the difficulty of the crossing, arid desert country, blistering heat, not to mention the risks surrounding the huan traffic in illegal immigrants. It was interesting then to focus back on France. The students identified North Africa as the source of most immigration to France. We again looked at the map. I asked students to contrast the type of journey facing an immigrant heading to France. First you must cross the Mediterranean Sea, said one student. Is that difficult? I asked. Another boy pointed to the Straits of Gilbraltor. It’s very short, he said. Then what? I asked. At this point, the responses dried up. Obviously there remained at least an entire country, Spain, to traverse before crossing into France. I found myself wondering if that journey wasn’t somewhat analogous to the one that still lies ahead of Hispanics headed further north to places like Denver or Chicago. (These are questions I intend to put to colleagues like Hamed when I get the chance.)

So, I asked them, why come to France? The first answer I got was, because France is wealthy. I asked about language, did the French language play a role? Several heads nodded yes. We looked once again at Mexico. What language is spoken here? I asked them, do you think language is a draw here or is it an obstacle to those coming to the U.S.? The textbook we're reading offers up some charts on Hispanics in the U.S. It also recounts in brief the story of Proposition 227 in California where voters decided to dismantle a bilingual educational system offered to non-native English speaking children. The article states the Latino parents voted with the majority on this issue. Their logic?...English is the language of advancement.

I ask my students if bilingual programs exist here. No, they say. Here you must be educated in French. Does everyone coming here speak French, I ask? Shoulders shrug but that's about it. French is the language of advancement.

I would add to this that the analogy is somewhat asymmetrical in that France and Europe have long since been committed to bilingualism, both institutionally and culturally, but that commitment has diluted their focus on mastering their own language. Indeed one could argue that such mastery is part and parcel of the wider commitment to bilingualism.

The more I think about this the more I am convinced that language study is of enormous importance to our students (American students), even more so in today's world. It is a window into other languages and cultures but, equally important, it is an invaluable line of inquiry that leads one inevitably back into important discoveries about his native tongue.

There is no doubt that English is the lingua franca of the world...a recent editorial in Le Monde even went so far as to suggest that English be designated the official language of the EU as a practical means of unifying and regulating its institutional foundations. On the continent English ranks first (45%), German second (aound 20%), and French third among languages spoken by Europeans. But having said all that, it strikes me as naive and shortsighted to essentially equip our students with the bare minimum of linguistic skills. Why hasn't the phenomenon of the shrinking globe which is such an animating principle in the market place not penetrated he same degree the educational market place of ideas? It strikes me as the worst sort of head-in-the-sand kind of thinking by those of us who are responsible for deciding what our kids need to study in order to be able to participate fully in today's world and in order to fully realize their own personal dreams. Language is fundamental.



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