Learning and Losing Languages

Regardless of where they came from, most immigrants to the Mahoning Valley have faced a common challenge:  language.  Greek immigrant Harry Kitakis remembers how he and his family used hand signals to communicate when they arrived at Ellis Island in 1913 because they spoke no English, though he says he learned to speak and write English in about 5 years.  Armando Labra had a similar experience coming from Mexico 70 years later.

Many immigrants in the Youngstown area took English language courses offered by the International Institute.  The Institute organized classes, some of them targeted for groups who shared the same first language, beginning in the 1910s.  Today, the English Language Institute still teaches English to recent immigrants.

For most immigrant groups, the older generation learned little English, but their childen – like Harry Kitakis – learned English in school.  Some who immigrated as children learned English but also held on to their native tongue.  James Berroteran, for example, speaks English well but enjoys the opportunity to speak Spanish as well.  Over time, knowledge of the home country language faded, so many of the children and grandchildren of immigrants know only English.  Mary Ellen Wilcox remembers that her grandparents, who came from Slovakia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, knew almost no English.  A century later, she knows almost no Slovak.

It’s not unusual for second and third generation descendants of immigrants to seek opportunities to learn the language of their grandparents.  Mike Ekoniak says that he’s learning Slovak in order to keep in touch with his relatives back in Slovakia.

In the Mahoning Valley, a number of ethnic organizations sponsor language classes.  You can study Polish, Italian, and other languages.

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