I am a child of immigrants. I started kindergarten in a small Midwestern town speaking fluent German and no English at all. America was in the grip of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Even five year old children of foreigners were feared and hated, for how else to explain why mothers yanked their kids away from me when they scooped them up after school. Or the recesses I played alone because when I scrambled onto the schoolyard merry-go-round, the other kids scattered off. I might as well have been sporting a red swastika instead of my dirndl dress and Heidi braids.
But the defining moment of that school year happened when my mother forgot to pack my fork with lunch.
“Ich habe meine Gabel nicht” I cried, over and over, but no one understood me and no one could help me.
I quickly learned English after that – I don’t remember how but it was fast – in the way that all youngsters soak up languages and information at that age. And as many children of immigrants, I went on to be more educated than my parents, fulfilling their hopes and mine.
As a trial lawyer, I earned my living with language. I could cajole a judge or seduce a jury with the right words. My mother tongue was relegated to my parent’s home and time spent in Germany. But still, I dreamed in German.
I believe in speaking the language of the country where I live. It’s so much easier. I can ask for things that are needed – like a fork maybe. There are street signs and newspapers that I can read and from them learn useful information.
I can join society – exchange pleasantries with neighbors or people at the bus stop. Engage in conversation about everything – or nothing at all.
Most importantly, I can make myself heard on issues affecting me and my family – health care, education and workplace rights.
I have learned the power of words – but only those words that can be understood by others. I believe in the value of preserving one’s native tongue. But I also believe that only if we all speak the language of the country we’re living in can there be a playground where burkas, saris and sarongs can all share the same merry-go-round.
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