Language and cultural identity


I teach ESL to immigrants who work very hard to lose their accent. They feel they need to eradicate their foreign accent in order to be taken seriously at work. Although it is my job to help them do this, I really think that it is sad that this variance is regarded as a negative attribute.

The first language that I learned was English, and because I lived with my Grandmother, she was my first model for my native tongue. My Granny was an immigrant; she came from Russia when she was 4 years old and spoke in broken English. She had a very basic vocabulary and syntax and would stick to two or three word sentences: “Come eat!”, “ Don’t walk barefoot!”. I thought about this when I had trained myself to use simpler sentences for ESL class.

As an adult, I realize that my Granny used Yiddish to hide her concerns about things that her grandchildren were not supposed to know about. Of course, that made me listen even harder to what she said to my Grandfather. Perhaps this intrigue is what led me to teach English because I realize that being able to communicate in a second language is a powerful tool.

When my children were in preschool, I found a Yiddish audio recording of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I was surprised that I could follow the story and my children were curious to know the words too. Sadly, my Grandmother associated her language with the oppression she experience in Russia and refused to teach it to me. For me, Yiddish was a mysterious experience that could only be found in our kitchen. Although I never learned Yiddish, my experiences with my Grandmother made me aware of how memories and cultural identities are inseparable from language.

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