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Bilingual and struggling

A bilingual parent tries to keep a native tongue alive at home, a problem faced by many immigrants.

Anna Hsu, 5 (second from r.) mimics teacher Kennis Wong as children sing a Chinese song at Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles, one of two English- Mandarin immersion programs.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File

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My daughter Bonoo Zahra, age 3, began preschool in August, and my worst fear about her education in the United States is coming true – English is invading her speech.

Before she began school, she exclusively spoke Farsi, our native Afghan language, but now she shuts the door to her room and prattles in English with her imaginary friends. She prefers to watch cartoons in English and wants me to read her books in English.

My husband, Naeem, and I decided our language at home would be Farsi so that our two daughters could learn to speak it. They would learn English in school and outside the home. After watching dozens of relatives' and friends' children in the US forget their native language, we are determined to teach Bonoo and Andisha, 5 months, the importance of bilingualism. But it's a battle many second-generation immigrant parents have lost to the pervasiveness of English.

Besides preserving cultural heritage, a second language can boost careers, sharpen analytical skills, and encourage communication with a world outside one's own.

The loss of language is a deep-seated fear among many immigrants. The US has been dubbed the graveyard of languages by some academics for pushing English and excluding other tongues. Currently about 55 million Americans speak a language besides English at home, but by the third generation, the home language tends to atrophy, according to various studies. American society supports a rhetoric of multiculturalism but not multilingualism, experts say.

While many of our parents wanted us to assimilate faster and speak English better, our generation – the 30-somethings – is focused on preservation. In the past few decades, the emergence of identity politics has encouraged ethnic Americans to hold on to more than English.

More 'heritage language' learners


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