When I teach college composition to ESL students, I spend much of my time thinking about linguistic matters. But, since I am a student of rhetoric, I also try to understand the goals my students hope to achieve with their second language. When asked about their motives for studying English, they initially offer variations of the most popular answer: mastery of the language will allow for academic success, which will in turn bring about professional and financial success. Sometimes, though, these students point to less material rewards: closer relations with native speakers, a more intimate understanding of mainstream culture.
I encourage my students to articulate their hopes and motives for learning English because we are often led to a discussion of cultural realities (i.e., ethnocentrism, racial prejudice) which can stand in the way of inclusion and empowerment. My students often reveal that they are sometimes perceived as "foreigners" and "others," but, like Richard Rodriguez, they continue to express their faith that English, along with academic diligence, will allow them to overcome the obstacles associated with these labels.
I share their faith, but I know that for many years to come my students will have to navigate cultural frontiers separating "mainstream" Americans from ethnic and linguistic minorities. At several junctures, they will feel compelled to change themselves in order to pass through, and such changes will require them to relinquish their parents' beliefs, values, traditions, and customs. Some writers, most notably Richard Rodriguez, have argued that these students must change--that is, they must become more "American" and less "ethnic." But, even if one rejects Richard Rodriguez's argument that mastery of English should accompany the adoption of a public identity at the expense of an ethnic one, he or she would probably agree that learning a public discourse can have profound effects on a student's identity. What, then, are some of the more interesting and important effects?
In order to find answers, I have studied the rhetoric of several ethnic writers who provide detailed accounts of their linguistic assimilation into American culture. In this article, I would like to focus on the autobiography of Mary Antin, a Russian Jew who came to America at the turn of the century. I chose her book, the Promised Land, because Antin not only writes about her language studies in detail, but because she also describes their impact on her perception of herself. More importantly, as Timothy Parrish has suggested, The Promised Land is Antin's attempt to instruct her American readers about the effect that her assimilation should have on their perception of her. It is, then, the rhetorical autobiography of a language learner.
Put another way, Mary Antin's statements about language learning are part of a symbolic attempt to cross cultural borders, often by identifying, in implicit and explicit ways, with the people she finds on "the other side." Indeed, I will even go so far as to assert that when Antin writes about language learning, identification is her immediate rhetorical aim. This aim is...