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Literary History Project
Transcript of Literary History Project
Literary History by
Language History Gallery
My Family Origins - Mother's Side
My maternal grandfather’s family can trace its origins to the original English settlers of the American colonies and further back into medieval English history. Although we can also find a family link to President Lyndon Johnson, clearly there was no "foreign" language loss on this side of my family. (Pictured here are my maternal grandfather's parents - Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Johnson Waller)
My maternal grandmother was born in Western Canada into a family that was among the first Jewish settlers in the region. (Pictured here is my maternal grandmother with her mother and siblings - she is the child in her mother's lap.)
My Paternal Side
My paternal grandmother came to the US on her own from what is now Belarus through China at the age of 16, while my paternal grandfather was born in the town of Kolomaya, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now found in the Ukraine. He immigrated with his family to the US when he about seven years old. My grandparents spoke the languages of the Jews who lived in the general area of the Pale – Yiddish, a smattering of German and Russian.
My paternal grandfather with his family circa 1900 - he is at the bottom right
My paternal grandparents on their wedding day circa 1922
Like nearly all immigrants who arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe in the era between 1890 and 1910, they faced intense cultural pressure to minimize their use of their native languages.
My mother - college graduation but no second language study.
My father heard his parents’ original languages spoken only sporadically in conversations with his elderly relatives. Otherwise, he and his sister were raised in an exclusively English-speaking home. He graduated from Mission HS in 1945 without second language coursework.
Portes and Rumbaut (2001) observed that the “dimensions of parental national background, family socioeconomic status, and household values and norms” play key roles in determining whether children absorb a second language. Bearing this in mind, my lack of any degree of fluency in a second language should be no surprise to anyone.
The opportunities for learning a second language in elementary school were nonexistent. and the absence of a required foreign language class was routine until I began high-school. Nor was any language other than English heard on my schoolyard. Although I attended public school in the geographical center of San Francisco, one could probably count all of the non-white children on two hands and perhaps two fingers were sufficient to tally the children who were neither white nor of Asian ancestry.
When I reached high-school, I was required to take French, Spanish or German. I chose French primarily because I idolized undersea explorer and documentary filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. Once I conquered French, I thought, the only things that stood in my way of joining Cousteau’s crew aboard his research vessel, Calypso, were learning to scuba dive and acquiring a taste for sardines. Alas, mes amis, it was not to be . . .
My parents did send me to Hebrew school three times a week for about five years. I resented every minute that I missed of the after-school sports that my friends pursued and I learned only enough Hebrew to get through a bar mitzvah.
Yet my decision to discontinue French – I never returned to the subject in college – is one that I deeply regret to this day.
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” I have missed out on an extraordinarily beneficial and fulfilling skill. My mistake would not be repeated by my children. My wife, a Spanish literature major in college, insisted that both of our daughters study Spanish until they became fluent.
My daughters pictured at Cordoba , Spain 2013.