How Tom Miller Learned English

The intro to a new book featuring essays from Latinos on life and language

Just this morning a front-page story told of the enormous demand throughout the United States for courses in English as a Second Language. Immigrants, regardless of their economic, legal or employment status, know that speaking English increases their potential at work and play. Learning a language as a youngster is easier than as an adult. At any age it can be grueling, painful, aggravating, fulfilling, amusing, instructive, gratifying and rewarding--sometimes all of these, sometimes all at once.

When my wife came home from her first day in English as a Second Language class I asked what she had learned. "Oh, really?" Regla replied. "That's interesting." Her first four words in English showed polite curiosity and superficial nicety. In fact, to everything I asked, she responded, "Oh, really? That's interesting." What was the teacher like? "Oh, really? That's interesting." Were there many other students? "Oh, really? That's interesting." Did you break for lunch? "Oh, really? That's interesting." Over the years it's become a running gag.

Regla's first ESL class took place at a neighborhood community center that offered free courses as a public service. Her fellow students were mainly the wives of day laborers and of recently arrived campesinos. She next took a semester at a university ESL center, where her classmates were doctors, physicists, engineers, economists and chemists--not the image of typical ESL students, but just as anxious to learn a new language. Finally she completed her ESL studies at a community college.

Early on in this country's history, local schools often offered instruction in the language of its main immigrant student population combined, frequently, with English. States passed English instruction laws toward the end of the 19th century, only to repeal them not long after. Some cities, though, did away with bilingual classes altogether and relegated foreign languages to high school instruction only.

When waves of Italian and Eastern Europe immigrants arrived in the early 1900s, philanthropists underwrote night school English classes, notes James Crawford, an authority on bilingual education, "while indoctrinating immigrants in 'free enterprise' values." Industrialists such as Henry Ford insisted his employees attend loyalty classes, and "an ideological link was forged between language and 'Americanism.'" After the Spanish-American War, an effort to force public schools on the newly acquired island of Puerto Rico to teach only in English was so disastrous that soon the attempt at linguistic colonization was diluted and eventually, after World War II, abandoned.

"We have room for but one language in this country," Theodore Roosevelt wrote 10 years after he left the presidency, "and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns out people as Americans ... and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house." Roosevelt pushed for more classes for immigrants to learn English, but also "the deportation of those who failed to do so within five years." This attitude got a boost in Nebraska, where, in 1919, the legislature passed a statute that English "become the mother tongue of all children reared in this state." (The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state's law four years later in Meyer v. Nebraska.)

There isn't just one way to learn English, as the contributors to How I Learned English prove. All of them built their English on a foundation of Spanish (or Portuguese). Most of the immigrants who tackle English today start with this underpinning. Just 75 years ago, though, the source of most immigration was European. In The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, a droll 1937 entertainment by Leonard Q. Ross, all the students at New York's American Night Preparatory School for Adults came from Germany or Poland. Ross, the pen name of Polish immigrant and Yiddish linguist Leo Roston, wrote of one student whose remarkable contortions of the English language constantly bewildered his exasperated teacher Mr. Parkhill. The beguiling and innocent Mr. Kaplan, who always signed his name with asterisks between capital letters, told the class that the plural of blouse was blice, of sandwich was delicatessen, and that among United States presidents were Judge Vashington, James Medicine and Abram Lincohen.

Upper-class foreigners, in the days when working class Hyman-Kaplan took courses, were taught through a new approach called English as a Second Language. By the 1950s ESL had spread to all levels to combat "cultural deprivation" and "language disability," as one account had it. My own upbringing was entirely in English, surrounded by wall-to-wall books and a surfeit of daily newspapers. When my parents didn't want us to understand them, they spoke household Yiddish. In the late 1960s I moved to the American Southwest, and over the years have often traveled from there into Latin America. In both places I have met innumerable people for whom English was a second language, and have become intrigued with how they acquired this new way of speaking and the manner in which it affected their lives. Increasingly my personal and professional friendships developed with those for whom English was not native, as mine was, but another layer. Finally, I married into a Spanish-speaking family, and watched in admiration as first my wife, and then my stepsons learned American English and adapted to its cultural foibles, inexplicable idioms and linguistic idiosyncrasies.

Spanish-speakers trying to master a new tongue are neither culturally deprived nor linguistically disabled, as some would have it. On the contrary, they each have something to contribute to the English-speaking world. Many speak more than two languages. I've always thought that speaking a second language could make you more mentally agile but not necessarily smarter. I've known plenty of people whose lingual was more semi than bi. Yet by the time someone adds a third language to the mix they're either on the ball or on the run.

The killer in English, as in all languages, is the preposition. Nowhere did this strike me more than in Manhattan, where Regla and I once sublet a fifth-floor apartment in a heavily Dominican neighborhood near 145th Street and Broadway. The building super, whose apartment was situated next to the elevator in the lobby, had posted a sign on his front door, with an American flag near the top. Thank you, America, it read, for all that you have done to us. Was ever a preposition so artfully misconstrued?

I rather like the notion of Theodore Roosevelt's polyglot boarding house, would be happy to lodge there. I suspect many of my friends would stay there as well. In fact, we may have already done that, dear reader, and How I Learned English just may be a transcript of our multilingual arguments and pontifications going deep into the night. Now that's interesting.

Tom Miller, who conceived and edited this volume, has been bringing us extraordinary stories of ordinary people for more than 30 years. His highly acclaimed travel books include The Panama Hat Trail, about South America, On the Border, an account of his adventures in the U.S.-Mexico frontier, Trading With the Enemy, which takes readers on his journeys through Cuba, and, about the American Southwest, Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink, winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book of 2000. Additionally, he has edited two collections, Travelers' Tales--Cuba and Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader. His articles have appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, The New York Times, LIFE, Natural History, and many other publications. He lives in Tucson. More about Miller may be found at . This is his 10th book.

Reprinted with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book How I Learned English by Tom Miller. Copyright 2007 Tom Miller. All rights reserved.

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