Thursday, June 17, 2010

Overseas Programs: Some Observations Before You Go

This is the time of year when high school and especially college students begin to go abroad to study a foreign language for a few weeks, possibly a couple of months or more, in an immersion environment. Let's break that statement down and see what it means.

First, let's look at what it means when we refer to the foreign-language learning experience of US students. By the time a study-abroad decision is made, most of them have been studying their language of choice for at least a half a year, usually a year, before they decide to take the plunge and go abroad. That means a lot of textbook learning in books that, while they discuss "culture" what they really offer are vignettes of (usually) quaint customs, holidays, foods, art and music. But, what they have and haven't learned about their target language, its social culture (and the particular place they are going to be immersed) matters much more than what most textbooks have the courage or the space to impart. Often, teachers are timid about telling the "whole truth" for fear of offending their students, their colleagues, parents and administrators -- of course, the degree of reticence depends on the age group and many other factors. Conventional wisdom works well here, as long as one knows what it entails: The stronger the foundation, the more the student will get out of the experience in every way. That said, there are many students for whom the experience will not pay off linguistically because there is too much they have not learned and most of their time will be spent learning a lot of simple discourse strategies they should have been at least exposed to while in their home country.

In general terms, this means how to engage in verbal give-and-take in culturally appropriate ways in the target culture. They also should learn about taboos -- and a readiness to learn that what is taboo in one culture may not be in another. Students faced with this steep uphill climb often suffer the most from culture shock and will often seek out their fellow Americans, and thus dilute the experience for the group. One solution is to impose a "no English" rule for the group, but this is often hard to enforce, especially under cultural stress.

Successful foreign-language students, of any age, are the bold ones, not necessarily the ones with a 4.0 in every subject.

Next, let's examine how long the student will be overseas and assess its linguistic return on investment (time, money, effort, risk and so forth). The learning curve varies from person to person. The student with a weak foundation will spend his or her time cobbling it together -- such students should probably be discouraged from going on a study abroad program, unless they are eager beavers, very social and have a strong desire to invest a lot of effort. Yet the short duration of study abroad programs should make everyone step back and ask whether student A or student B is ready to benefit from the stay. The best programs are those that involve a serious semester at a foreign university. No, make that a year abroad as a foreign student taking classes with native speakers of their target language.

Finally, what do most people understand when they encounter the word "immersion"? It has a ring to it, like a talisman that will somehow solve a student's previous difficulties. As if one could devise a pill. The one phrase that should disturb foreign-language educators is "I'm going to [pick a country] to pick up [language]." As if one picks up a language like one picks up a cold.

I'm going to say what needs to be said: Immersion is more psychological than geographic. It is quite possible to immerse onself in many language communities right here in the US -- certainly in most large cities. True, there are some languages that don't have large enough communities of speakers for this to work. But remember, if you're going abroad, you need to go all the way. It takes discipline to stay away from friends and make new ones. It is tough when you want to say something and can't find the words to do it, but keep at it and it will pay off.

Stay engaged in the moment. Open up all your channels for absorbing information and communication and you will succeed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mexican Immigration: Historical Perspective

This blog is about Language Learning and Translation. What some readers may not realize is that neither of these endeavors happen in a political, religious, cultural or historical void. Since the subject of "Illegal Immigration" from Mexico is a hot topic, let's examine a few historical realities that make the case that Mexico is unique among Spanish-speaking country in terms of its historical relationships with the United States.

At the outset, keep in mind that this is a whirlwind tour. It is meant to be. Take it as a primer to locate the issue of Mexican immigration in its historical and political moorings, setting forth a few facts that are not commonly taught in US schools. But they are well known to Mexicans, even to most who are not educated.

"Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca a los Estados Unidos," declared Benito Juárez, president of Mexico at the same time Lincoln was president of the Union. "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States." Why would he say that?

In the interest of time, I will not recap the history of the Spanish conquest, subjugation and "Christianization" of Mexico. Most people are sufficiently aware that Mexico is a nation that resulted from the mixing of the two groups, usually not willingly. Although Mexicans as a group are too polite to say it out loud, they often share Pancho Villa's view of the Spanish, and hence of much that was European. Pancho Villa was illiterate, but he is recorded to have said: "¿Quién los invitó a mezclar su sangre con la nuestra?" -- "Who invited them to mix their blood with ours?"

So, Mexico is Amerindian. Its population is composed of mostly native people. Statistically, the average Mexican is 85% native American. Here is another detail that is a part of the consciousness of most Mexicans: One important founding legend, known as the Popol Vuh, is strikingly similar to Genesis and Exodus in many details, relating the story of the Creation and stories about the first tribes. Another legend relates to the founding of Mexico City by the Aztecs, who proceeded from a place known as Aztlán. Tradition has it that this land was the southwest of the US, according to best guesses from the description of their wanderings that eventually led them to found Tenochtitlán, or modern Mexico City.

Next, let's fast forward to the 1830s when the Southern states in the US were working to gain a majority in the US Congress. Recall their efforts in "Bloody Kansas" and in Missouri to secure this majority. Southerners moved from the deep south to Texas. Texas had long been a politically organized state of "Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos" ("The United States of Mexico"). They brought their slaves with them, of course, to work in the vast cotton fields. By this time, Mexico had outlawed slavery (at least of the type that existed still in the South, in Brazil and in Cuba). Wealthy Mexican landholders were wary of these newcomers, but generally tolerant since the Anglos were minority and, truth be told, their plantations promised to bring revenue. Little did the Mexicans know what a Trojan Horse they had allowed within their borders.

Most people know the phrase "Remember the Alamo" as a battle cry to urge troops to defeat Mexico in the Mexican American War (1847-1848), but most people in the US do not know that the Anglos had been angling to declare Texas independent from Mexico -- so they could eventually join the Union and add two more Senators and several representatives of "southern persuation" in Washington, DC.

History shows that they did just that. After the Republic of Texas came statehood. In other words, the Anglos in Texas were instigators of an armed insurrection against Mexico with a not-so-long-term agenda of joining the Union as a Southern state. With Texas joining the Union in 1845, the stage was set for the further westward expansion of the US, "from sea to shining sea," so to speak. This expansion was driven by many motives, many different groups, by opportunism certainly. But never far behind was the racist assumption of white superiority, shored up by the "doctrine" of "Manifest Destiny" -- clearly of Calvinist  inspiration, albeit turned to justify greed.

Recent graduates of West Point, both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were young lieutenants in the Mexican American War (1847-1848). In their diaries, both of these distinguished gentlemen reported that they had never been ashamed to wear their uniform -- except when they were involved in that conflict. For instance, the atrocities committed on nuns drove the Irish soldiers to defect. To this day in northern Mexico in particular, one finds a lot of Mexicans with names such as Patricio O'Brian González. Now you know why.

With her defeat in the Mexican American War, Mexico lost one-third of her territory and thus the potential economic development tht the US has reaped from this territory: California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Remember the California Gold Rush in 1849?

The Congressional Record of the pre-war period reveals that the debates in Congress involved examining options about what to do with Mexico. Some advocated for conquest and incorporation into the Union. The argument against this was that Mexico was a nation of "half breeds" -- and would have to be "schooled in democracy" for a long time before they would be "ready" for the advantages of "civilization." In other words, these debates more than suggest that the War was planned in advance. 

There is more evidence of deliberate planning. The surrender document, known as the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo is interesting. The language it contains had been written before the war began! How can we say this? A ship set sail from the East Coast during the war, en route to Los Angeles, carrying a surrender document for the Mexican mayor of what was then a Mexican port city. Remember, there was no Panama Canal yet, so the tall ship had to round the Horn. Yet, "somehow" in the age before telegraph, the phrasing of this document is nearly the same as the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo which ended the War.

After the war, Mexicans who had been living in their own country suddenly found themselves on the "wrong" side of a new border. They became second-class citizens. The wealthy landowners lost their land. It became illegal for more than three Mexicans to stand together in the street and speak Spanish -- it was viewed as a possible conspiracy against the new landlords. This sort of prohibition and prejudice against speaking Spanish continued into the 1960s in Texas. How do I know? Because I was in first grade there and told by my mother not to speak Spanish at school or I might be punished. 

As anyone considers what is the right course of action to take with regard to Mexican immigration, it is important to remember that Mexico is our neighbor from whom we have carved one-third of her territory. Mexicans are native peoples. In that sense, they have a doubly strong moral claim to be in what is now "our" territory.

That said, I hasten to add that we cannot simply "give it back" without committing further injustices and damaging our own people. The drug traffic complicates the picture, too.

But here's thought that's been thought before but not followed up:

Former president George Bush, who had previously been governor of Texas, proposed a temporary worker program. It makes sense. If we "legalize" Mexican workers by issuing one- or two-year, renewable work visas, we would also be able to tax them. What a thought! Much needed revenue for social security, health care, roads, schools... in short, they would be paying their way while they are here, providing services most US-born people will not take. 

Furthermore, no matter what we decide to do, Mexicans will, no doubt, keep coming across illegally. But a temporary worker program would allow them to enter the US, work here and not live in fear. In addition, the temptation to become involved in drug trafficking would be greatly reduced if there were a safe and legal alternative involving honest work. After all, most people would rather make an honest living and provide for their loved ones than run the risk of prison or violent death by getting mixed up with drug cartels. Such a program would also make for better relations with Mexico.