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Electronic Journal: Being Multilingual


Immigrants to the United States have sometimes faced a tension between keeping their native language and learning English, a tension also felt by their children. The following quotes show how Americans have wrestled with this challenge and how attitudes have changed.


"We should have every child speaking more than one language. ... If you have a foreign language that is a powerful tool."

- U.S. President Barack Obama during a campaign speech in 2008.


"I considered Spanish to be a private language. ... Without question, it would have pleased me to hear my teachers address me in Spanish when I entered the classroom. I would have felt much less afraid. ... But I would have delayed - for how long postponed - having to learn the language of public society. ... But I couldn't believe that the English language was mine to use."

- Essayist Richard Rodriguez details the tension between learning Spanish, the language of his parents, and learning English.

Quote from: Rodriguez, Richard. The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, an Autobiography. New York: The Dial Press, 1982, p. 19.


"Growing up, my mother's 'limited' English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. ... I later decided I should envision a reader for the stories I would write. And the reader I decided upon was my mother, because these were stories about mothers. ... I imagined ... her internal language, and for that I sought to preserve the essence."

- Author Amy Tan describes her childhood perception of her mother, an immigrant from China, and how that perception changed when Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club.

Quote from: Tan, Amy. "Mother Tongue." Originally published as "Under Western Eyes" in the Threepenny Review, 1990, pp. 315-320.


"The term 'heritage language' denotes a language learned at home that is different from the dominant language of the community. ... Later in life, proficiency in [a] heritage language provides [the speaker] with additional opportunities and advantages, whether in academia, professional life, or the business world."

- University of California, San Diego, Heritage Language Program home page


"For many of us who have come from different countries, our difficulties with American idioms often lead to unexpected syntactic constructions and surprising turns of phrase which enrich the language and by which we all are enriched."

- Gregory Djanikian, a poet of Armenian descent who emigrated from Egypt to the United States, reflects on how the English language has been molded by immigrant communities.

Quote from: "Poet Celebrates Family Picnics and 'Great Melting Pot' of Language." PBS News Hour (4 July 2007).


Loanwords in the English Language


English incorporates many words from other languages. Here are a few examples:



|English Loanword   |Language of Origin |


|Armada             |Spanish            |


|Bazaar             |Arabic             |


|Chess              |Persian            |


|Deli/ Delicatessen |German             |


|Icon               |Russian            |


|Shampoo            |Hindi              |


|Tsunami            |Japanese           |


|Wok                |Chinese            |



(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:

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