Why Preserving Ancestral Languages Is Key for Uplifting Immigrant American Communities

This undated photo provided by George Lange for The College Board shows high school students in a classroom at Columbia High
This undated photo provided by George Lange for The College Board shows high school students in a classroom at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J. With competition to get into top colleges ever-stiffer, and kids with SAT scores well into the 700s finding themselves rejected not just by Ivy League schools but also by well-known colleges all over the country, you might think most high school students these days are getting scores in the stratosphere. (AP Photo/The College Board, George Lange) NO SALES

The first language through which I perceived the world was Hindi -- the language of Northern India. As I entered kindergarten, I distinctly remember a classroom atmosphere of condescension towards my language. I'm sure that many other schools were different, but that was the tone in my school. As I spent more time in that environment, I slowly began to lose fluency in my own ancestral language. Hindi eventually became a memory stored in the back of my mind. Like so many other children of immigrants in America, English became the only language I could speak fluently.

Language loss among immigrant cultures in the United states is a symptom of many forces operating together. Mass media, the education system, and employment requirements are all parts of the reason. However, I believe the root cause lies with the ugly legacy of centuries of colonialism. Many non-white peoples have been made to feel that their language and culture is somehow lesser.

Eliminating the language of a culture was a primary strategy used by colonialists to assimilate, fragment, and ultimately control peoples. In the United States, Native Americans were taken from their tribes and placed in English schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language. The modern day language loss of so many immigrant children like myself shows that some element of that assimilationist attitude still exists in American schools -- even if it's not as overt as before.

Language is like a programming for the mind -- it shapes our perception of ourselves and our world. Each culture's language is the embodiment of its unique outlook on life. When I lost Hindi, I lost the key to identifying with my own people -- like losing the ability to tune into a certain frequency.

Without our ancestral languages, we may look like one another, but we've lost one of our deepest common bonds. We become isolated from our communities -- unable to relate to each other all that differently than we would with a white person, or someone from another culture. A unique and special bond forms when two Armenian-Americans meet and can converse in Armenian, or when Korean-Americans converse in Korean.

Our language unites us. Speaking our language among our people keeps our culture alive, gives us pride in ourselves, and strengthens our bonds. This is why preserving our ancestral languages is key to uplifting our condition in America: language unites us and united we are strong. Divided we are weak.

Although personal sentiments toward immigrant cultures have improved since the time of legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, we all know that we're still far from having a fair and equitable system. Non-white communities in America still face systemic prejudice in almost every aspect of their interaction with the establishment. In addition to this, we have less wealth, less social and political power, less access to fresh food, and we tend to live in more polluted inland and urban areas with dirtier water. Our condition needs to be improved. Language loss is fragmenting us. Preserving our languages will help us to maintain more cohesive and strong communities. And strong communities can advocate for themselves.

Children of immigrants like me were socialized as minorities within a majority white culture. Growing up, I feel that they made it seem like European-American culture, historically and currently, has everything right and is always on the path towards progress. On the other hand, cultures like my own had gotten it wrong. It felt like they were saying that we had fallen behind and our cultures were backward.

When I started college at Berkeley, I took it upon myself to relearn Hindi. I took Hindi classes at Berkeley, and arranged to study for a semester abroad in India, during which time I studied more Hindi. After graduating, I went back to the same language school that I went to during my semester abroad, and spent nearly half a year single-mindedly focused on learning Hindi. I regained my verbal fluency completely, and now I can also read and write Hindi with proficiency.

I think that when you know your ancestral language, you can fully understand your culture. You can see that in many spheres, your culture possesses profound wisdom and insight. For example, in the Hindi language, the words for tomorrow and yesterday are the same word: "kal." This reflects the Indian culture's cyclical view of time, in contrast to the Western conception of time as linear. Indians believe in rebirth -- not only of people but of the universe itself. During my time in India when I was fully immersed in Hindi, even dreaming in Hindi, I felt how the rhythm of the language made the rhythm of my life different. Life was slower and more musical. It was and is uplifting for me to tune into this different frequency through language.

Connecting with the ancient and historical truths of my culture -- which are embedded in the language -- has been empowering for me. And I think it would be empowering for any immigrant American to maintain this bond with their culture and community.

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