This is the fourth in a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers in a local English class in my city.
I think it is important to remember that our goal is to help our conversation partners and their families add one more language to the list of language(s) they already speak. Our goal is NOT to replace the language they already speak with English. Being bilingual is a great thing. It can help us connect and stay connected to more groups of people, to express a wide variety of meanings, and it can also make us better at multi-tasking. But the reality is that in the United States, immigrant families don’t stay bilingual very long. It used to be that in three generations families would go from speaking no English at all, to only speaking English. Now it only takes two generations. While there are a lot of reasons for this, one thing we can do as English conversation volunteers is to keep in mind the value of being bilingual. We aren’t teaching people a better language or a replacement language or even the “language of success”. We’re teaching them English, which will allow them to connect with new people and new opportunities, but we also value the other language(s) they speak that connect them with other people and other communities that are equally important to their lives.
The information about the amount of time it takes for immigrant families to switch completely to English comes from a chapter written by Geoffrey Nunberg in the book The workings of Language: From prescriptions to perspectives.