Edited by Karen Ogulnick
New York Teachers College Press
In a world where the media are filled with commentaries on bilingual education versus language immersion, Karen Ogulnick has edited a book of essays and varied personal accounts of people's experiences of learning a language and how this has shaped their cultural identities. She has divided the collection into a number of parts including Dislocations, Mother Tongues and The Difficulties of Language Learning with incisive short introductory essays preceding each part. Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, a resident of Montreal, whose original language is German, her second language English and her third French writes:"If German inhabits my body, English clothes me in a well-tailored somewhat elegant costume." Being Jewish and English speaking, she is "other" twice in the context of the French speaking majority Quebec community. In a community of outsiders in Israel, Elizabeth Dykman, a Polish immigrant, describes connecting to other immigrants from diverse cultural backgrounds. And Rita E. Negrón Maslanek, a Puerto Rican immigrant, describes how she fought against racist attacks with humor, while being immersed in an English only school environment. But she notes that a cousin of hers was traumatized by the immersion method of language instruction. Ultimately, she defends the linguistic "sink or swim" approach to language-learning against bilingualism, which she says in general does not prepare students to function in a highly competitive modern society. In the search for their cultural roots a number of the writers describe their efforts to reconnect with their native language after assuming the dominant language of their society, usually English. Schooled in the English language, Pramila Venkateswaran charts her journey back to her maternal roots in India; linguistically to the Tamil language, culturally to her native land and personally to her mother through their intimate communication through the Tamil language. Mimi Bluestone returns to her mameloshen (mother tongue), Yiddish, in adulthood to rediscover a world that has shaped her perceptions and emotional reactions. In Recollections, Margie English, a deaf woman, reflects on the interaction of English and American Sign Language in her life and concludes:"I shall forever be a student of both languages." Many people have difficulties learning another language. Robert Roth in sharp impressionistic vignettes describes his struggles with Spanish, Hebrew, French and ironically with English:"My problems with English, my native language, are pretty acute. Only ever so often can I write anything that makes any sense." Stephanie Hart was traumatized when trying to learn another language because she could never measure up to the standards of perfection set by her father, a gifted linguist. And then there are the multi-language learners. Watson R. Millison recounts the joys of mixing several languages in a multi-lingual family. George Jochnowitz states unabashedly that:"I have always loved languages." He describes how his passion led him to study linguistics. In a mythological excursion, Christina Kotchemidova writes of her search for the god of language and concludes:"No wonder the ancient Greeks didn't need a god of language. The place is taken by the human race." The last essay in the book by the editor, Karen Ogulnick, Learning Language/Learning Self, is about inner and outer journeys. Trips that she took through different countries and cultures, especially Japan, helped her to see the social structures that oppressed women in both Japan and the United States."Beyond knowing words and grammar, learning a language involves acquiring a role, and knowing how to act according to that social definition." Language Crossings presents a large and varied cross section of views on peoples' relations to learning languages. The essays are intensely personal and generally well-written. They open our eyes and ears to the many ways that people learn languages. Cultural background and learning styles figure heavily in the process of language acquisition. The collection makes you realize that learning a language is a complex process, not only linguistically but emotionally, and there are many roads to the state of nirvana which only comes when you really know another language.
Howard Pflanzer is a playwright and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theatre and Speech at the City College Center for Worker Education.