My father often tells a story about an event that happened when I was quite young. And while the story has nothing to do with me, it has everything to do with my understanding of literacy, and so I tell it too. It seems that a man came from out of town on business. Dad met him at an informal reception in the workplace, and upon learning that my father was Polish, the man began telling Polack jokes. This particular situation can be easily compared to the same man visiting, and upon meeting a particularly beautiful blonde colleague; he begins telling dumb blonde jokes. My father might have laughed at the first basically benign joke, but as the jokes continued, and as time went on, became more distasteful and bigoted, my father was no longer smiling. Dad knew that he could have just left the room; instead, he waited for a lull in the barrage, and asked pointedly, “Do you speak Polish?” When the man answered negatively, Dad asked “How does it feel to be dumber than a Polack?” This put an effective stop to the jokes. This particular story has stayed with me throughout my life. My dad tells the story often, always in response to some particularly bigoted statement by a family member or acquaintance. I think the story stays with me for the same reason. I mean, how can a monolingual individual possibly be more intelligent than one who is bilingual? But I think now, too, of the gender-related as well as stereotypical issues with dumb-blonde jokes. How can we use language, gender, hair color, skin color, or country of origin as a measure of worth? Why do we?
A similar story is told by my mother, always in response to the assumption that she must be bilingual. Both of my maternal grandparents were immigrants. My grandfather, an illegal German immigrant who jumped ship from a merchant vessel when it landed in California. My Grandmother came as an Austrian refugee of the Holocaust. The two met and married in California, and spoke fluent, albeit different, dialects of German in their home. When my mother was born, local school officials suggested that speaking two languages, one at home, one in public, would confuse my mother (despite the fact that her two sisters, both more than a decade older than her, were bilingual). So my mother was raised speaking English-only. I feel that my mom was deprived of some important linguistic skills that could have opened so many doors for her.
I think of the general attitudes and discourses regarding literacy today, and I can see how closely related they are to the attitudes and discourses regarding the first languages of my grandparents, and the value they placed on learning English as direct evidence of their worthiness to become citizens of the United States. Grandma spoke a dialect of German commonly referred to as Platdeutsch (Low German), while Grandpa spoke Hochdeutsch (High German). Grandma, being painfully aware of the disadvantaged classification of her dialect, made every effort to adapt her skills to accommodate the more privileged dialect of Hochdeutsch. She knew how this advantaged categorization of language affected the way others classified her, so she reverted to her Platdeutsch only when arguing with my grandfather as a point of irritation. Grandma’s painful awareness of the privileging of dialects led her to insist on the use of “proper English” at all times, just as she insisted that my mother never leave the house without gloves on. Both modes of communication, the one verbal, the other visual, were distinct determiners of status in the eyes of my Grandmother. Much of this insistence on “proper,” albeit arbitrarily defined behavior, is still evident in the values expressed by my mother today, especially when it comes to language.
As a child I came to adopt these same values, insisting that there was just one correct way to communicate, and that “proper” English must be used as a method of maintaining societal integrity. When I think about those attitudes in relation to my own life, I think most specifically of a field trip that I participated in when I was in the third grade. This particular field trip was significant to me at the time, and has stayed significant as part of my growth as a literate woman. In retrospect, it has become even more significant to me as a way of understanding differences in backgrounds and cultures that contribute to the growth of a literate America.
This was the year my family moved from a middle-income neighborhood in “white American suburbia” to a rented home in Lark, a tiny defunct mining town that housed a
variety of elderly widows, Mexicans, Navajos, and single-parent families. My parents were attracted to this location because of its low rent, and more importantly, its proximity to the property they were planning to build a new home on in an exclusive gated community. In my new school, I was among the minority—a child from one of only two intact white middle-class families in the whole town. We only lived there for two years, but those two years shaped my early attitudes about reading, writing, and communication in the English language. Continue reading