Language Broadens Definition of "˜American'

My name is Michael Matsuda. I'm 54 and the coordinator of teacher support and professional development in the Anaheim Union High School District in Anaheim, Calif.

I am a third-generation Japanese-American. My parents were interned as teens during World War II in Poston, Ariz. They both grew up in Orange County.

Before my mother was interned, her principal at Anaheim High said he would not tolerate any discrimination or harassment against Japanese-Americans.

Later, in camp, she received a letter from the principal. He wrote: "I am probably more Japanese than you are. I was born in Japan, the son of a missionary. I speak fluent Japanese. I am very upset about what has happened to you and your family."

That letter helped comfort her through that period.

Even though they were brought up in traditional Japanese households, my parents gave up their language and a lot of the culture. I myself am monolingual. I don't speak Japanese, and I regret that I cannot speak a second language. I have a 13-year-old son who is taking Spanish. Based on the most recent research, I wish he were enrolled in a dual-immersion program where he could more fully acquire the language and understand the culture, which would help secure his future in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Because of my parents' experience, I am very sensitive to the experiences of immigrants and low-income and marginalized people. Currently, about 23 percent of all students in California are English learners, which makes us the implementation laboratory of education policy for English learners. Of course, much depends on how we define the outcomes of such policy. Do we want to eradicate primary languages and cultures in order to "Americanize" the student population? Or do we expand the meaning of "American" to include the immigrant's language and culture as an American asset?

From Arizona to California to Florida, the definition of what it means to be an American is again in the national discourse.

For us to continue to be a relevant superpower, we're going to have to value our existing diversity and multiculturalism. We cannot continue to be the central economic hub of the world without leveraging it in a strategic way. There is immense opportunity for us, but we cannot afford to squander it under a narrow view of "American."