Assistant Professor, Linguistics (Comparative Humanities)
"As people migrate they enter new communities and adopt new languages along the way. They also bring their languages with them, and sometimes even leave traces of them behind. This process can produce friction and results in human dramas both small and large."
The U.S. has a long history of multilingualism. Many of Louisville’s children were educated in German language schools and German was often the language of religious worship in Louisville’s churches and synagogues through the 19th century and into the 20th. Facts like this remind us that the U.S. is “a country of immigrants,” but this is only part of our story.
Many of our ancestors arrived to the U.S. not as immigrants, but as people enslaved, while others did not cross the border but rather, as Chicano activists in the U.S. southwest have long said, “The border crossed us.” This could also be said for other linguistic groups including French speakers in Louisiana, Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians, and, first and foremost, American Indians. To hear the language of the Shawnee who were forced to migrate out of Kentucky one must either travel west to Shawnee communities in Oklahoma, or to the Falls of the Ohio visitor center, in Indiana, where one can hear recordings of a Shawnee family conversation.
Any time you say words like muskrat, raccoon, hominy, hickory, or pecan, to name a few, you are saying words that come from the same family of languages as Shawnee, Algonquian. The traces of Indian languages also remain in our place names. One account of Kentucky’s name has its origin being Mohawk, kentake meaning fields, referring to the lands along the Ohio River where Iroquoian hunters would come seasonally.
As people migrate they enter new communities and adopt new languages along the way. They also bring their languages with them, and sometimes even leave traces of them behind. This process can produce friction and results in human dramas both small and large. The politics surrounding language and migration had a profound effect on my intellectual and professional trajectory. I began my career in Los Angeles schools as a bilingual elementary school teacher in 1998, the same year that California voters passed Proposition 227. This law aimed to ensure that education in that state would be in English only.
The conflation of race and national origin with language, both inside the school where I worked and outside it in the community, drove me to ask questions about the impact multilingualism has on institutions and society, questions that continue to motivate my research in the field of linguistic anthropology today.