Wednesday, July 9, 2008

ESL Then and Now

Let me tell you all a story. I just realized something, the KikoGrandmama (grammy, for short) had English as her second language. I knew this, but it just dawned on me (again) this morning how it is connected to the world of today. And what our Teachers are doing in the field of ESL to facilitate changes in the global economy.

Now I realize this is ancient history to most people here, days of yore...

Her parents arrived on US shores around the turn of the last century. Her father arriving maybe a few years earlier. Neither spoke English whatsoever. GreatGrammy was only 16 when she put herself on a boat to come to NJ to sew doilies, lace collars and such. Father was a few years older and was already (an army deserter*) established as a coal miner in a town not far from where I live now. He'd already had one wife who perished in a terrible fire, and had been back and forth to Europe already to take money to his family and bring another brother back to America with him.

We used to romanticize that this couple met on the boat, but that's not how it went. After #1 wife died, he knew that there was a section of NJ (Hoboken?) where the Ukranian immigrants settled for factory jobs and he made the trip back there to find wife #2, someone who spoke his same language--Russian. This practice, I am told, was common in those days.

So he found the little girl who knew how to tat and grow cabbage, picked her, and brought her the 300 mile journey to her new home. But after being in NJ sweat factories for even a short length of time, she had started learning English. Father never did.

Flash forward Arrow ten children later, Kikogrammy being one of the last born and Father was STILL only speaking Russian, never having the need to learn English as his settlement had a Russian community that encompassed everything he needed. Being a strict authoritarian (in the way of eastern europe families), he did not allow his children to speak any language other than his mother tongue in their home, his castle.

Thus my mother grew up speaking only Russian until she started grade school. Now being one of the youngest siblings, she had probably heard enough from the elder ones to make it easier, but they hadn't. They learned English in school. They were solely Russian speakers in their earliest years in the home, only learning English once they started school.

Only yesterday she told me a story of one of my cousins yelling at the cattle in Russian when he was four years old. Repeating what he heard his Grandfather do every evening when it was time to bring the cows home.

So that's my little story. Take whatever lesson you wish from it, but know that it's been played many many times in all areas of the globe. And feel proud that you, Teachers, are a part of it in the age we live in now. I salute you.

* Father had been taken into the Russian army at age 16, did a stint, said adios to that horseshit (living on sunflower seeds), and hightailed it to Italy where he picked grapes for seven years earning boatfare to America. Just like the guys you saw below decks in Titanic.

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