Languages in Asian American communities in NYC
Tomonori Nagano, LaGuardia Community College and Brooklyn College (CUNY)
Keywords: languages, assimilation, immigration
My motivation for participating in the Building Asian American Studies across the Community College Classroom seminar was to incorporate Asian American Studies, especially some of its social justice elements, into the Japanese Studies Option (Liberal Arts major) at LaGuardia Community College. The Japanese Studies Option is a relatively small major of LaGuardia, consisting of about 35 students whose primary interests are Japanese soft culture such as games, comics, anime, and J-pop. There are a small number of Japanese Option students whose interests derive from their familial ties to Japan (e.g., second- and third-generation Japanese American) or from their experience of living in Japan. The goal and challenge of the Japanese Option is to develop such diverse students’ interests into marketable skills with clear professional career paths by the time they graduate from LaGuardia (nearly all students transfer to four-year schools after graduation, but we still place value on students’ career planning). The objective of my participation in the seminar was to revitalize “Languages of the World and of New York City” (ELN105), which was offered as a linguistic typology class until late 2000’s. I was hoping to redesign the course outline of ELN105 by incorporating some elements of Asian American Studies (and also of other Ethnic Studies) in it.
For someone who has been trained as a linguist with a minimal amount of exposure to Ethnic Studies, the Building Asian American Studies across the Community College Classrooms offered me a lot of new information and novel perspectives. I had opportunities to deeply think about the role of social justice in my pedagogy and how to refine and incorporate such new perspectives in my classroom and the Japanese Studies major. Among all seminar activities, the field trips to different areas of New York City, including Richmond Hill (Queens), Sunset Park (Brooklyn), and Jackson Heights (Queens), were especially insightful since these visits were tremendous help for me to synthesize the seminar readings, discussions, and talks by the guest speakers. As a novice scholar in the field of Asian American Studies, I think I have obtained a student’s perspective and and have learned the power and promise of experiential learning for effectively introducing Asian American Studies into my classrooms. Also, as a linguist, I was somewhat perplexed by the complete absence of “languages” as a research theme in Asian American Studies. In my observation, the issue of minority languages is subsumed by the concept of “assimilation” and there has been very little research focusing on language and power in Asian American Studies. I became very curious about the role of languages in Asian American communities in the U.S. since linguistic diversity is a hallmark of Asian American communities, compared with the earlier waves of immigration groups, who often spoke languages that are typologically adjacent to the Indo-European language family and shared some degree of linguistic typological similarities, both with English and each other. During the seminar, it became clear to me that languages spoken in Asian American communities are key to understanding current issues in Asian American communities, including the access to social welfare/services, cross-generational communication, and within-/across-community conflicts, to name a few.
Given this experience, I decided to develop a small class project for ELN105, in which students are instructed to identify and document a minority language spoken in the local community. Students, in small groups of 3-4, will visit the community of their interest and report about the language maintenance effort, language and ethnic cohesion, and linguistic challenges in these communities. The project guidelines include ethical guidelines for fieldwork as well as data about languages in New York City neighborhoods, which were retrieved from the 2015 American Community Survey (U.S. Census) data. A copy of the project guidelines can be found below. Unfortunately the class that I was scheduled to teach (“Languages of the World and of New York City”) was canceled in Spring 2017 and I did not have an opportunity to use this project with students, but I’m looking forward to trying this project in my class in the future.