Lost in the Melting Pot

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Second-plus generation immigrants are losing their heritage in modern American society, especially the ability to speak another language

By Rebecca Xu
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The music blares. People sing. It’s Indian dance class where junior Perky Bhargava has attended every Sunday for 13 years. However Bhargava doesn’t understand the lyrics of the songs she dances to. That’s because she was born and raised in Indiana and can barely speak the language of her ancestors, Hindi.

“I need someone to explain (the songs) to me,” Bhargava said. “When everyone’s putting in input on dance moves, I can’t because I don’t know what they’re saying.”

Bhargava represents the people of a generation in the United States, usually the children of immigrants, who are losing their ethnic culture. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonprofit organization that studies human migration and immigration, bilingualism is more common among second-generation children (children of immigrants born in or raised in the United States from a young age) but is usually completely gone by the third generation.

One of the explanations for the decline of bilingualism stems from the desire of immigrants to blend into American society, which was especially prominent in earlier Italian immigrants.
English teacher Patricia G. Southard, who is Italian, said she has personal experience with this aspect. Southard’s grandfather came to the United States in the early 20th century and ultimately settled in Pittsburgh.

“My grandfather was a tailor and called his business the Paulson Brothers, since (the name) Greco was too ethnic,” Southard, whose maiden name is Greco, said. “They worked so hard to try to assimilate into the American culture. They weren’t allowed to speak Italian in the house, and my grandfather would tell his kids, ‘You’re in America, you speak American.’ ”

She said that her father ended up losing the ability to read and speak Italian altogether and was not able to communicate with his younger brother, who had gone back to Italy.

Michelle Mittelstadt, a worker for the Migration Immigration Source (the online journal for MPI), said that Southard’s family’s situation was a classic one.

“Immigrant families have historically tried to fit into American society, and often these families encouraged the children to learn English and move upward in society,” Mittelstadt said.

Bhargava said she grew up learning primarily English since her parents knew schools were taught in English, but she grasped an understanding of Hindi from listening to her parents talk.

This is not unusual since Hindi is a common second language spoken in U.S. households (other than English), ranking 16th out of hundreds of other languages, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Despite her own speaking skills, Bhargava said she still understands most of what her parents say in Hindi. “If I don’t, they always translate,” Bhargava said. “Or just leave me out of the conversation.”

STICKING TO HER ROOTS: Junior Perky Bhargava practices traditional Indian dancing. Bhargava said that Indian dancing is one way she keeps her heritage. SHOKHI GOEL / PHOTO
STICKING TO HER ROOTS: Junior Perky Bhargava practices traditional Indian dancing. Bhargava said that Indian dancing is one way she keeps her heritage. SHOKHI GOEL / PHOTO

Bhargava said all of her relatives speak English so she communicates with them comfortably, and if they say something in Hindi, she responds in English anyway.

“(I could speak Hindi) if I really wanted to, but they probably wouldn’t understand me. It’s embarrassing,” Bhargava said. “I speak, like, broken Hindi. I’ll do half in English with the words I don’t know and then I’ll put in some words, and they’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

However, she said she is still connected with her Indian heritage through her religion, Hinduism, as well as traditional Indian dancing. She said she would have her own future children learn Indian dancing if it was available, but she regrets her speaking abilities since she probably wouldn’t be able to pass down the Hindi language.

“I think it is important so you can relate to the people of your heritage and a lot of values and things that pass down from generation to generation, and you need to be able to keep that so it’s not completely lost,” Bhargava said.

On the other hand, Southard only began learning Italian in college. She said she is “awful” at speaking, though decent at reading and writing. “In my E-mails to my relatives, it’s my three-year-old Italian with their five-year-old English,” Southard said.

However, the legacy continues. Southard said her son embraces his Italian background, takes Italian in college, and speaks more fluently than she does. She said people understanding their heritage and language helps find out who themselves are.

“You know, you’re going to get married,” Southard said. “I’m a Southard now, you know, what’s that? But my maiden name is Greco, and I’ve been a Southard longer than I was a Greco, which is kind of sad. But that’s why I carry my middle name as my maiden name now.”

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