For There Is No Butter
On the Other Side"
My father was born and raised in Denmark, left as a teenager and never returned. He died when I was young, but Christmas cards and letters would arrive, mostly in Danish, as my family lives in a rural area and do not need to use English often.
When I was in college, curious about these relatives that I knew only from letters and old photographs, I wrote asking if I could visit. On my twenty-first birthday, never having flown or been out of the country before, I landed in Copenhagen and took a small plane out to the Jylland peninsula, where I was greeted by my family waving Danish and American flags. We returned to the farm where my father was born and raised, to a typical Danish lunch of smørrebrod, and the next evening was welcomed with a family reunion over 100 uncles, aunts and cousins, almost a state dinner with flags, speeches, toasts, all in a language in which I knew little more than "Glaedelig Jul og Godt Nyt Aar" (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year).
However, after three weeks of visiting various farms and villages, and seeing all the schools and landmarks of my father's childhood, I began to learn basic Danish. I am still not really fluent (I don't get a chance to practice much in this country), but after half a dozen more trips over there, and visits here by an aunt and uncle and several cousins, I can communicate adequately enough to get around and take part in family conversations.
This may seem like simply a personal anecdote, but it has had a far more profound influence on my views of culture and bilingualism than educational theory classes ever could.
I am familiar with the difficulties of trying to maintain a family language and tradition while living in a mainstream English-speaking culture and economy. I grew up in West Marin County, California, at a time when it was largely first-generation Portuguese and Italian farmers and fishermen, hearing them switch between English and the old languages and speak of life and family in the Old Country. My teaching experience has been in bilingual communities, on the Navajo Reservation and in Penasco, a village of 350 between Taos and Santa Fe. I have worked with students living between two cultures, not as fluent in Spanish or Navajo as their parents, but not entirely comfortable with the English language and culture.
Students have to know that they can be successful in two cultures simultaneously. Anglos need to feel comfortable working and socializing in bilingual environments, and to know that they don't have to be entirely fluent or comfortable in a language before they make an effort to use it. Students using two languages should know they can be successful using them in various situations and vocabularies. They can speak the language of the family dinner table, with their parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and also hang out with their friends at the playground, mall, wherever, and speak whatever mixture of languages they are comfortable with. At the same time they can also be successful in school, college, and the business community, learning the vocabulary, in English, Spanish and other languages needed in that environment.
Biography and Resume