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Kim Potowski urges attitude change toward language diversity

Caroline Bressman , Contributing Writer
October 8, 2012 • 1,534 views

On Thursday, Sept. 27, St. Olaf hosted Dr. Kim Potowski of the University of Illinois at Chicago to speak in Viking Theater. Potowski has a long list of outstanding credentials, including her titles as associate professor of linguistics at the university, executive editor of Spanish In Context and director of the Heritage Language Cooperative in Chicago. She has advocated for Multilingual Chicago, a grassroots effort to symbolically declare the city as multilingual, despite Illinois’s official status as an English-only state. Additionally, Potowski received a Fulbright Teaching Grant for the academic year 2011-2012 in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Potowski’s talk, titled “When ‘Foreign’ Languages Aren’t Foreign: The Value of Heritage Speakers in the United States,” centered on the importance of a multilingual community. Potowski argued that linguistic diversity in this nation is not a problem; rather, it is a resource. She recognizes the need for English proficiency in minority groups, but asserts that the U.S. should preserve the right to maintain heritage languages.

To begin her argument, Potowski defined a “heritage speaker”  as a person who “grew up in a household with exposure to a minority language,” which Potowski referred to as a Language Other Than English (LOTE). To give the audience a grasp of the United States’s multilingual richness, Potowski cited a few statistics, noting that approximately 330 different languages are spoken in U.S. homes today. Not surprisingly, English is the primary language spoken at home for 82 percent of Americans. Spanish is second at 12 percent. Subsequent languages, in order of frequency, are Chinese, Tagalog, French and Vietnamese.

Potowski explained that many Americans are not aware that no law requires that English is the official language of the U.S. Instead, local and regional law dictates an official language, if any. By 2010, 28 states had declared English as their official language, and only Hawaii, Louisiana and New Mexico legally protected bilingualism.

Potowski then argued that declaring English as an official national language is “unnecessary, punitive, useless, divisive, inconsistent and self-defeating.” She said that the English language is not in danger, and that the act of declaring it the official language only restricts the government’s ability to communicate effectively. Furthermore, Potowski believes that such a sanction is a violation of the freedom of speech.

Many Americans complain that immigrants “refuse” to learn English or that they simply are not learning it quickly enough to integrate into American society. In fact, immigrants are learning English at a faster pace than ever, and no other country has been able to shift as quickly to monolingualism as the U.S.

Potowski used more statistics to prove her point – after zero to five years, 20 percent of children age 14 or younger have learned English. Sixty-five percent of foreign-born LOTE speakers are proficient in English and 35 percent of similar LOTE speakers have limited proficiency. Many LOTE speakers know more English than they realize, though.

“I think that if people hear an accent, they assume that someone can’t speak English,” Potowski said.

Many English as a Second Language programs are available in the U.S., but according to Potowski there are inherent problems in the system. Sixty percent of these programs in 12 states have waiting lists that last from a couple of months to several years. Additionally, conflicts with work, childcare or cultural traditions may stand in the way of attending classes.

Potowski even cited President Obama’s remark that Americans shouldn’t worry about immigrants learning English but rather ensure that American children learn foreign languages. ABC News reported Obama saying, “All we can say is ‘merci beaucoup.’ We should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age.” According to Potowski, who wrote a letter to President Obama after he made these remarks, it is essential that the government appoint a cabinet member whose sole job is to implement effective second-language learning in schools.

How can the U.S. help new immigrants learn English while preserving their heritage? Potowski outlined three methods: the use of a truly bilingual immersion program for kindergarten through eighth graders, the offering of courses specifically for heritage speakers in high schools and universities and community programs such as Saturday heritage schools. Studies show that if LOTE speakers are immersed in both their native tongues and in English, their English skills actually improve more than if they only learn English.

“It is in our best interest that these individuals be well-educated,” Potowski said. As questions opened after the talk, students were curious as to which government officials were listening to this information. When Potowski admitted that no special advocacy groups were formed to tackle this issue, one student responded, “That’s awkward.”

Perhaps St. Olaf students can carry the torch to achieve concrete progress in this important issue.

bressman@stolaf.edu

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