Harvard Educational Review
  1. Language Crossing

    Negotiating the Self in a Multicultural World

    Edited by Karen Ogulnick

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2000. 180 pp. $52.00, $22.95 (paper).

    Language Crossing: Negotiating the Self in a Multicultural World is a brilliant collection of essays and stories of language learners and their most intimate reflections on identity, as negotiated by their language-learning experiences. Editor Karen Ogulnick ingeniously joins the stories of these learners’ reflections into a unique bouquet that gives voice to the realities of language learners. This book presents research on language development that is colored by the complexities of real life and the authors’ passion for self-interpretation. Ogulnick divides these stories of humanity and love into five major sections that also represent the major theoretical themes of multilingualism.

    In section one, Dislocations, Ogulnick integrates the essays of eight people who describe their personal transformations when learning a new language or switching language use. An opening poem by Myrna Nieves, based on her memories as an immigrant child from Puerto Rico growing up in the United States, portrays her experience of writing English as a “puzzle,” connoting a sense of personal fragmentation in her quest to make meaning of unknown English sounds.

    Through stories of loss, adventure, and love, immigrants transform themselves as they adapt to various situations that they face in different linguistic contexts. Sometimes reinventing themselves, these authors engage in a linguistic metamorphosis as they transform themselves or their personas in each culture they encounter. In a story of loss and love, for instance, the daughter of a Jewish-German immigrant family in Quebec embeds her trilingualism in each language’s political context. Her identity is shaped by the effect of linguistic contrasts in which she was always depicted as the “other.” With these contrasts, she asks herself, which language will she die in? Searching for an answer to this question throughout her essay, she concludes that French has become the language of her heart, as she has lost the echoes of her grandmother’s German language.

    In another story of transformation, an immigrant child in Switzerland discovers she has no place of origin, because in this country children inherit the father’s place of origin. Her father was from Czechoslovakia, and her teachers taught her early on to hide her origin: “You don’t fit in,” they told her. She reflects on this early experience as the possible reasons for her fascination with languages. She proactively assimilates the interaction of culture and languages that embodies multiple linguistic identities. Making the world her country, she describes change as going through airports and embracing the “crossings” of language to occupy “new bodies.”

    In a journey from Poland to Israel, another immigrant child becomes fascinated by the “other” (people that looked different and spoke other languages) and actively seeks the experience of crossing language barriers. When she arrives in Israel she immediately socializes with the “newcomers” that arrived from different countries and that became their new neighbors. She finds that those barriers break at the realities of the immigrant experience in which people get reinvented and languages get renegotiated.

    “Mouth open, tory jump out” is the educational model through which a child in Trinidad learns that language is the only means of acquiring higher social status. While her father’s goal is to disassociate her from the colonized culture by giving her an English education, she later discovers — when she becomes a writer — that “writing for effect” is writing lies, because she is writing about realities that are not her own. She finds her voice through her first novel about her African roots.

    In a moving world where children constantly move or grow in environments different from their parents’, adaptation often takes priority over tradition, and language adaptations inevitably bring loss. In section two of the book, Mother Tongues, we hear stories of loss and of reencounters with loved ones who reside in bodies of silenced languages or with the people that carry the social significance of a language.

    Having lost her mother’s language while in pursuit of an English education, another author now living in the United States finds in her memories of linguistic interactions with her mother when growing up in Bombay that she has also lost her mother’s cultural values, a loss that has disrupted their relationship. By reclaiming her native tongue, Tamil, she also reencounters her mother and reclaims the values that she gave up for her English education.

    In another story of mother tongues, the effects of multicultural discourse are depicted in a story of remembrance by an author who takes the historical approach of cultural genocide. His identity is shaped by Peru’s history of Spanish colonization and through his experiences of immigration to the United States. He transports issues of power, politics, and culture into the discourse of multiculturalism and his reencounter with Quechua, the Peruvian indigenous language. Similarly, in another story of remembrance, a child revives the effects of a forgotten culture by reflecting on the social context of her linguistic experience in a disappearing linguistic community in New York. Her experiences growing up learning Yiddish, despite the shortage of fluent speakers in her community, influences her belief that she carries the Yiddish linguistic residues of the past. In another story of loss and reencountering new but inherited identities, a little girl remembers asking her White American father why he could not find them a mommy with blonde hair and blue eyes. This identity conflict is resolved for the girl when they move to Korea. By learning the sociolinguistic rules of her mother’s tongue, she understands her mother and learns to value her Korean origins.

    Two stories of hearing impairment exemplify the obstacles and linguistic identity issues that children sometimes have to overcome. Through a child’s memories of growing up in a deaf family and trying to adjust to an oral English world, we learn to appreciate her American Sign Language culture and the strategies she uses to navigate the many limitations of the educational system in serving the deaf community.

    The voices of those who yearn for transformation or to get close to others through language are represented in the essays in the section entitled Difficulties of Language Learning. These authors, in one way or another, were motivated to learn other languages, and while their attempts were fruitless for different reasons, theirs are also stories of the love of language.

    One author’s vivid memory of his thwarted efforts to learn other languages painfully marks his experience. His memories of language use reappear as experiences of failure, not only for him, but also for others he cared for. He witnessed their feelings of frustration and humiliation as they fail to learn other languages or to use their native language (English) appropriately. Through these remembrances, language learning is associated with social humiliation, even in his native language. In another story of frustration, a woman’s reflection about her stressful relationship with her father, a linguist who spoke multiple languages, is intimately related to her failure to learn new languages and her decision to become an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.

    Although the essays in this section seem to be stories of failure, they in fact are stories of a love of language. Even in their personal defeat as learners, these people make the best of their experiences. One learner applies her understanding of the difficulties of language learning to cross borders in ways that give her access to the linguistic worlds that she cannot come to know as a speaker. By becoming an ESL teacher she helps others to become members of different linguistic communities and she gets to know other cultures and the structures of other languages in this role.

    The next section, Our Love Affairs with Languages: Stories of Multi-Language Learners, is the epitome of the love of language in relationships. Religion, playfulness, and love of people in other cultures inspired the authors to learn Hebrew, to keep their accents, and to fall in love in different languages.

    These authors explicitly celebrate their knowledge of languages and the hope, flexibility, and adventures that being a multilingual speaker has granted them. Moving between the worlds of Chinese, English, and French, for instance, gives an American girl her sense of identity and an impression that she can “triplicate” with her trilingualism. Another author uses his linguistic knowledge playfully to communicate and to understand the structures of different languages and their historical connections. “Learning a language makes me a child again” (p. 128) is how one writer describes her experience. Finally, another multilingual girl holds on to her accent through her journeys among several languages just to remind herself of the contradictions that she lives every day and the amusement that comes with them. For example, after earning a degree in English philology she finally believed she knew English in Italy because she felt involved in English, and that is how she could better express tenderness to her lover.

    The two authors in the final section, Close Encounters in Other Cultures: Learning Language while Living Abroad, bring out the inevitable and scarcely explored connection between language and culture. While learning his wife’s language in China, one author finally understands the role of a husband, as well as the meaning of the linguistic interactions between him and his wife and between him and his wife’s family from the insider’s perspective and in their cultural context. Another cross-cultural couple is confronted with the cultural nature of language as they experience a crisis on a highway in Mexico City and have to deal with Mexican culture when communicating with the Mexican police. They are forced to learn to navigate the connections between social roles and linguistic meaning by discovering that although they know Spanish they did not explicitly know the cultural symbols to communicate effectively. In another story, a Protestant minister in Taiwan struggles to learn the eight tones of the local language while negotiating the meaning of language between different Taiwanese cultures and religious orientations. Finally, Karen Ogulnick, the book’s editor, offers her adventures using languages in cultural contexts where she experiences the limitations of knowing the Japanese language but not knowing the Japanese culture.

    Reading these authors’ stories, I reflected on my own stories as a Mexican immigrant in the United States and reinterpreted some of the stories in this book through my own lens. In remembering my own adventures in learning English, in learning about different cultures, in learning literature, and in moving among the different discourses of English and the different status of these discourses, I see this bouquet as being bound by three ribbons. One is the ribbon of power negotiations in contrasting linguistic status. Another is the ribbon of motivation that is illustrated by the stories of difficulties with learning language. Finally, there is the ribbon of the roles of literature and religion that bundles together some of the stories presented in this book. The editor could have given more attention to some of these forces that have influenced the authors’ lives and linguistic worlds. However, it is possible to group these rich stories in a number of ways, and that is perhaps what makes this book unique and fascinating.

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    The Work Kids Do
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    The Value of Hard Work
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    Parents’ Aspirations and Investment
    The Role of Social Class in the Educational Experiences of 1.5- and Second-Generation Chinese Americans
    Vivian Louie
    Structuring Failure and Success
    Understanding the Variability in Latino School Engagement
    Gilberto Q. Conchas
    Immigrant Students’ Worlds in Art
    Robert Shreefter
    More than “Model Minorities” or “Delinquents”
    A Look at Hmong American High School Students
    Stacey J. Lee
    More Than Empty Footprints in the Sand
    Educating Immigrant Children
    Eva Midobuche
    The Effects of Immigrant Generation and Ethnicity on Educational Attainment among Young African and Caribbean Blacks in the United States
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    A Comparative Longitudinal Approach to Acculturation among Children from Immigrant Families
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    Understanding and Serving the Children of Immigrants
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    Book Notes

    Children of Immigration
    By Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco

    At War with Diversity
    By James Crawford

    Educating New Americans
    By D. F. Hones and C. S. Cha

    Language Crossing
    Edited by Karen Ogulnick