Multilingualism and Ethnicity in Baltimore

“Multilingualism and Ethnicity in Baltimore, Maryland”

by Daniel Morales and Panthea Parang

Click on this audio player to listen to our podcast “Multilingualism and Ethnicity in Baltimore” (41 minutes, 30 seconds; copyright 2011).

What happens when different generations within a family speak different languages?  As non-native English speakers who have moved to the U.S. and made it our home, we are interested in how speakers navigate a multilingual terrain.  In this podcast, we discuss issues of language acquisition, maintenance, and shift among multiple generations of immigrant and native speakers in Baltimore, Maryland.

In our daily lives, we make hundreds of decisions. When immigrants come to a new land, they have to make some important decisions, including language choice. Many parents come to the United States for economic advancement, hoping for betterment for their children, and their decisions become crucial in relation to how their children use language.

Our interest in this topic arose from the combination of personal encounters with foreign language speaking immigrants, with second or third generation immigrants who speak their heritage language, and with others who do not speak it—possibly because of parental or societal pressure to speak English, or because of the individuals’ perception of what constitutes language choice in U.S. society. Solving the language question—whether to maintain the mother tongue, shift to the mainstream language, or try to maintain two or more languages in the family—can bring with it many complications and linguistic reflections.

Our podcast explores how different variables and internal controversies affect an individual’s language use and the impact that a speaker’s family, school, and society plays in this decision. We investigate what people have to say about multilingualism and language contact:  how they maintained their home language, how their parents encouraged them to learn it, and how they deal with or would be willing to deal with questions of language when it comes to their  children. We collected experiences and insights from 15 people who speak different languages: Spanish, Hindi, Ukrainian, Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese. In addition, three professors from the Department of Modern Language, Linguistics and Intercultural Communication at UMBC—Dr. Ana María Schwartz, Dr. Tom Field, and Dr. Omar Ka—join us to discuss some issues surrounding language maintenance and to tell us about their own experiences trying to maintain heritage language in their own families.

Part I of the podcast, “Language and Ethnic Identity,” investigates how language plays an important role in the creation of identity. Heritage language is associated with one’s cultural background, and can be an important part of identity formation. You will hear how people who had learned their heritage language appreciate their home language, culture, family traditions and values.

Part II, “One Language at Home, One Language at School,” discusses how heritage language is spoken at home, with parents and relatives, while English is spoken in most of the other social domains. Generation of immigration and age are strongly associated with language maintenance, while other societal and community level factors may not be as supportive of the process.

Finally, Part III, “Why Speak Two Languages,” explores the role of school, family and society in creating a space where heritage languages are valued. Findings from empirical research studies continue to suggest that heritage language instruction, such as bilingual education and community-based heritage language programs, can remedy patterns of school failure among some English language learners. Heritage language instruction can help speed up students’ academic progress and result in better performance in English in the long run.

Teachers are often a primary point of contact between children of immigrants, school administrators, and government language policies, but further research and information are needed about the cultural heritages of a diverse population of students in order to better serve students, parents, teachers, schools, and communities in the U.S. We have created this podcast to be shared with the public as one step toward achieving that goal.  We hope you enjoy listening to it.

-Daniel and Panthea

You can also watch this short YouTube video, “Many Languages, One America,” on multilingualism in the U.S.

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