In this episode of “The Everyday Scholar,” APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer speaks to faculty member Martin Ponti about America’s continuing hesitation to accept bilingualism – and the importance of changing the nation’s direction.
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Read the Transcript:
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today, we’re talking to Martin Ponti, faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. And today our conversation is about growing up bilingual. Welcome, Martin.
Martin Ponti: Hi, Bjorn. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Of course. So just to start, can you share your experiences of growing up bilingual in the U.S.?
Martin Ponti: Sure. This is a topic that I really enjoy talking about since it really describes who I am as a person. So, I’m originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. And my family and I immigrated to the U.S. when I was about seven years old. And we moved to Brooklyn, specifically the Dyker Heights area of Brooklyn, which I don’t know if that’s familiar to a lot of our listeners. But that is a neighborhood in the Southwest corner of Brooklyn. It was a very multilingual area but predominantly Italian American. So, growing up there, there were some contradictions that would come up that, from a multilingual city, you would not necessarily experience.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: One thing about New York, I’ve always heard that it is very multilingual. It’s such a melting pot. There’s a lot of people who have, their original language is not English and then there’s many people who learn a language and so by living in New York and the Boroughs, you probably, do encounter more people who are bilingual or even multilingual.
Martin Ponti: Yes. And that’s precisely one of the contradictions that I want to bring up. At least when I was growing up even though that was also the norm, there was hesitancy in speaking another language in public. So as a public language, it was not something that was necessarily seen as okay. So one of the anecdotes I have that I always remember, and I always tell my students, walking to school. I remember going to school with a couple of friends that were also Spanish speakers and English speakers and I just started speaking Spanish. And one of them turns to me and says, “Shh, not so loud, you can’t speak Spanish,” which I thought was super strange. And then something like a few years later, going into a department store, I went to the salesperson and she was speaking to another salesperson in Spanish. And when I started speaking directly in Spanish, she switched to English.
And I always wondered, why did those interactions happen like that? And I guess, one of the question is why do those things happen, especially living in a multilingual city? For example, I’ve also lived in Miami which most people think, “Well, there’s Spanish speakers everywhere,” and that’s true. But I’d also have those encounters.
There’s also issues of how a person is perceived. So, for example, if I’m speaking to a person that may be from Puerto Rico, but I’m not perceived as being from that area, there might be a hesitancy for them to speak back to me in Spanish because I’m not part of that specific community. So, if I’m not perceived as such, for some people speaking a minority language it’s something that only takes place at home. So, when you’re not in that space, they don’t feel that protection, that security that they may have when they’re at home or speaking to a friend.
So, there could be many things that can influence a person to silence their minority language. But then there are also some language policies in the U.S. that have taken place like the English [KL1] Only Movement. For example, that was really big in the ’80s when I was growing up here. That was always in the news, all these talks about not using minority languages in public, at work, at school, while also growing up there were a lot of propositions that citizens could vote on to eliminate or keep bilingual education, so all of these things shape the way people feel about using a minority language in public.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I, myself growing up in the ’80s, I do remember that but growing up in El Paso, I’ve heard Spanish my entire life. And one of the things I always tell people, growing up in El Paso I was the minority. Since this is an audio podcast, I look like a Swede. But when you are white living in El Paso, you’re still the majority in a minority city so you don’t have that experience of being a minority. And so I don’t know if a lot of people who are white in this country know what that feels like.
Martin Ponti: And even in those instances where like you’re describing, if a white person does speak Spanish or is bilingual, they’re seen in a really good light whereas people who are bilingual from whose families are from minority languages or from another country they’re punished for being bilingual. So, there’s that also that strong contradiction where there’s a strong rhetoric in the U.S. for multilingualism and how positive it is. But on the other hand, a lot of those communities that speak those minority languages are punished, are seen as threatening, changing the dynamic, the cultural dynamic of the U.S.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely, correct. To me, one of the really great things about the U.S. is that as the years have gone by… And I say years and really centuries, it’s become extremely diverse. And that’s only a good thing because in the U.S., we’re able to hopefully, understand multiple perspectives, multiple ways from Argentina. Somebody from Argentina has a different perspective than somebody from Mexico. Again, all different perspectives to different cultural ideas but we come together and just understand each other.
Martin Ponti: Right. And that is the ideal and I think that most people would agree with that. That being multicultural, understanding the interconnections among nations, it’s so important even for ourselves to be part of that global conversation. But at the same time, bilingualism is so punished sometimes. And it’s that contradiction again, it’s not clear as to why. And also if we look throughout history, and even in our current time, the majority of the world does speak more than one language. But here in the U.S., we’re still considered a monolingual country. So why does that happen again? Even though we have these conversations about the importance of globalization, the interconnections, majority of the world is bilingual, but we don’t necessarily see that as a positive here.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is curious. As a product of the U.S. public education system, I took two years of Spanish. Again, I lived right on the border and I wasn’t able to learn. But at the same time, the U.S. doesn’t force you to learn because you go from state to state and a good majority of people speak English and then have a second language or third language. Versus if you’re in Europe and you go from Spain and you speak Spanish and you go to France, you have a different language and that’s literally, just an hour or two-hour trip. And then you go another three hours and you’re in Italy in a different language. Maybe in South America with Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, where a lot of South America does speak Spanish but Brazil, a huge country speaks Portuguese. And so needing to know that to me would be a requirement, I guess.
Martin Ponti: Yeah. And in your specific example about Portuguese, unfortunately it’s not something that it’s taught widely throughout Latin America and that’s a shame because Brazil, it’s such a large country that with such influence culturally, socially and economic, that it would benefit more Latin American countries to actually, be able to speak the language but it doesn’t happen. And a lot of research has been done specifically, about the U.S. and why the push for English only, has to do with this notion of the U.S. being an empire that it has to protect that sense of identity that it has and has been done through language. So one of the things that unites this country and any territory that the U.S. may be interested in, it’s going to unite them linguistically.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: When you’ve looked at that research, as the U.S. as an empire, does that mean as an economic empire or the old colonial type of empire view of it?
Martin Ponti: It’s a newer form of colonialism, like an Imperial nation that extends not only its military power, but it could be its cultural power, socioeconomic power. And one of the ways that it can do this is also linguistically. Because of its economic power that it has worldwide it forces other nations to pick up English in order to be able to do business, commerce in any cultural exchange that you want to have, has to happen in English. Whereas the empire being the U.S. doesn’t think to itself that, “Oh, I also need to learn the languages of those countries that we are influencing.” So that is what I mean by empire, this sense of the U.S. having these economic powers that also translates to a cultural power and can also be like in a military sense.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really like what you talked about, about the American empire because I don’t know if a lot of am of Americans view this country as “empire”. But as a “superpower”, that is an empire. And so there are policies, intentional and unintentional that an economic and military power will have that directly impact people. So can you continue talking about the intentional and unintentional policies when it comes to English only? And has that changed over the few decades?
Martin Ponti: Yes. I think just one last point about empire or sometimes when students ask me, “Well, what is some concrete example of the U.S. being an empire?” Well, I think one of the easiest ways to demonstrate that is to find all of the military bases that are throughout the world. Do we consider other countries having military bases in the U.S.? We’ll probably say, “No, there aren’t any because we are the empire, we have that power.” This doesn’t apply just to the U.S. but if we think about Spain, at one point it was an empire. And how did it spread its empire, its wealth, its influence? It also did it through Spanish. And that’s why now, in Latin America, all of the nations – except Brazil – that Spain conquered, speak Spanish because of that influence of empire. So, there are multiple languages that have created this sense of empire through language.
But just to move aside from the concept of empire, I think there’s other ways that we can think about why that contradiction exists in the U.S. And I think there’s also have been a lot of research. So scientific research that have really produced negative studies that show the dangers of bilingualism. And yes, these were probably, very early in the early 20th century. The most famous one is by Saer, published in 1923. And the title of that study was “The Effects of Bilingualism on Intelligence.” And his theory was that bilingualism really hurts people’s development, it causes people to have a lower IQ and this scientific research right at that time, which was considered scientific, was very damaging for a lot of communities. And those studies have been replicated many times confirming that if you speak another language you’re not fully developed mentally even though now with the science, we know that’s not the case.
And one of the interesting things about Saer’s study was that his method which was to give elementary school children an IQ test, but the IQ test was in the student’s weaker second language. So of course, if a student has not fully developed that second language, the one that they’re weaker in, how can they really answer fully? How can that demonstrate their knowledge?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that just seems like bad science to me.
Martin Ponti: Right. But at the time, it was like, “Oh, well, we gave an IQ test.” And not only was the IQ test given to test on the weaker language, but they gave more than five different IQ tests for different groups. So the control group was really not controlled at all. If you have different tests that measure different items, you can’t have a consistent answer or result that’s consistent. So, there were many issues, many problems with his study, unfortunately, over time, it took a long time to discredit that.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: There’s a lot of assumptions and beliefs… I’ll say beliefs … that are false but then people pass them on, they encounter them. And it’s hard to change people’s beliefs because sometimes they attach themselves to information that the community knows or expects or their local group. And if they perceive themselves as being in the “out” group, they’ll avoid that at any cost, unfortunately. When in reality learning a different language only makes you more desirable.
Martin Ponti: Yeah. And I think this speaks to perhaps, our students listening on the importance of doing research and being really careful about what you’re doing because it can have a really long lasting effect on different communities, not just on communities but the way we perceive things. It takes a long time, many generations to change that.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It makes me think of Separate But Equal 1896, I believe it was Plessy v. Ferguson which then established Separate But Equal throughout all of the country. Again, you can literally, point to laws that exist as far as that goes. But then when we talk about language, when the government tries to suppress speaking in a different language, it takes a while, and it takes people to really own, “Well, in the past we did something wrong and we need to change it.” And sometimes people are very hesitant to be like, “No, I don’t want to say that we did anything wrong in the past,” when you’re not the one who did it, it’s okay. Let’s all just move forward together.
Martin Ponti: Yes. And I think to your point, I think what you are bringing up is this idea when things are institutionalized in a way in society, they have that lasting effect that even though slavery ended because Jim Crow was institutionalized and there are ways from preventing those changes happening. And again, it has a really long-lasting effect. This idea, this change from Saer’s original idea against bilingualism began to change in the ’60s when more linguists began doing work in this area. They were trying to replicate Saer’s ideas and they felt that it was the same thing but they found something completely different when they studied bilingual children and they didn’t find big differences in their spatial reasoning.
So bilingual children and monolingual children basically have similar spatial reasoning but the big change, the big substantial difference they saw was in the way student’s abilities for using logic and symbolic manipulation was a lot greater in bilingual students. And this study was carried out in Canada, in Montreal, they had access to French and English-speaking students. And they were shocked about this idea of, “Oh. Well, for logic and symbolic manipulation, we see a big difference. So it must not hurt someone’s development if you can show this scientifically.” So that’s, I think one of the earlier studies that created this shift we’re seeing, it’s not going to make your development slow down. And it really started looking in at the meta linguistic abilities that bilingual versus monolingual students have. So that was an interesting shift there.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I think that’s absolutely, fascinating. Any final words Martin?
Martin Ponti: Don’t be against or afraid of opening up to bilingualism. There are many positive things we associate, now, like greater plasticity, a lot of metacognitive benefits. So don’t be afraid and you can always start learning another language. It’s never too late, that’s another myth. But we leave that for another talk.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s never too, I agree. It’s much like learning music. It’s never too late. We can always do it even when we’re 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, we can always learn.
Martin Ponti: The brain always adapts.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Well, thank you. And so today we were speaking with Martin Ponti about growing up bilingual. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.