The language of Slovak immigrants declined as they helped build America

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I want to become a Slovak citizen, so I have to learn Slovak, says second-generation Slovak-American Gregory Fabian.

A glossary of words is also published online.

John Hudanish cannot remember most of the Slovak words he learned as a child. However, the 82-year-old third-generation Slovak American can still count to ten in Slovak. It also recalls the sentence ísť spať (go to sleep) and the Slovak word for rascal, huncút.

By the age of ten, all of his grandparents, three of whom sailed to America at the turn of the 20th century from what is now eastern Slovakia, had passed away. It was the generation of immigrants who spoke Slovak, or one of the many Slovak dialects, and had to learn English to get by, working in mines, factories and as domestic servants, while their children born in the United States were fluent in English, not so much Slovak, although they understood the language of their parents.

“My own parents were not educated. They were having a hard time putting bread on the table, ”said Vietnam War veteran Hudanish,“ They didn’t have time to teach me Slovak, and it didn’t seem essential that I learn to speak it. “

I think for my parents it was important to fit in. Failure was not an option.

Dan Gresh explains why his parents didn’t teach him Slovak

If, in fact, East Europeans in the United States, commonly known as “Hunkies,” an ethnic insult used until the mid-20th century, wanted to ensure a better future for their children, they had to raise them like Americans. , not Slovak Americans. So many parents have decided to avoid Slovak in front of their offspring.

In his 1941 novel Out of this oven, American writer Thomas Bell, a first-generation American Slovak, chronicles the evolution of Slovak immigrants facing oppression and assimilation in America, which they had also experienced in Austria-Hungary. The aim of the book was to “strengthen the Slovakians’ pride of their origin”, as Bell says, whose name was Belejčák before anglicizing it. udový denník (People’s Daily), a Slovak-American newspaper which has now disappeared a few years later.

Yet decades later, most of the older generations, according to Hudanish, still have only a vague awareness of their ethnic heritage and lack national pride in their culture compared to the Irish or Italians, although the America is now open to minority cultures.

“Because I chose to live in Slovakia, I am kind of an anomaly, he said.

In Zvolen, where he moved three years ago, Hudanish lives with his wife and is learning Slovak, which is now taught by several schools in the United States, including the University of Pittsburgh.

Large melting pot

Little by little, Dan Gresh, a 70-year-old second-generation Slovak American who mostly plays the piano and sings, is also learning Slovak, but in Pennsylvania. Her parents had seven children, operated a large dairy farm, and therefore considered teaching Slovak to their children unimportant.

Gresh asked his father to teach him to count to ten, and he showed him once or twice, but then he got busy greasing the hay rake.

“He said I had to speak English,” Gresh recalls. “I think for my parents it was important to fit in. Failure was not an option,” he said.

The fact that Hungarian was the main language in Austria-Hungary, which dissolved after World War I, while English was the predominant language in America may also have contributed to the thinking among some Slovak immigrants that a knowledge of Slovak or a Slovak dialect was unnecessary for their children.

“For the generations of my grandparents and my parents during the two great wars, allegiance to this nation was an issue. You had to be a good American, ”said Gresh, who has visited Slovakia twice.

During World War I and World War II, Austria-Hungary and Slovakia were part of blocs opposed to the United States and its allies.

My parents didn’t teach us to speak Slovak or even much in front of us because they were afraid that we would speak English with a Slovak dialect.

Gregory Fabien

Cape Fear Community College history professor Benjamin Sorensen agreed that America wanted people to become Americans, and even though there was no set policy for it, in real life people had to s ‘assimilate to climb the social ladder. In addition, American propaganda at the time spoke of America as a great melting pot.

“This idea really saw America as a ‘melting pot’ that would merge cultures into an American culture, much like using intense heat to combine two ‘base metals’ to create a ‘superior’ product,” the professor explained. .

In 1916, a year before America entered World War I, former US President Theodore Roosevelt declared that he was opposed to any form of “hyphenated Americanism”. that is, the good American should identify as an American while any other culture in the United States should fully assimilate. to the new American life.

“It was really in response to this that Slovak parents have practically ensured that their children speak very limited Slovak, if at all,” Sorensen said.

Totally Americanized

The family history of Gregory Fabian, a second-generation American Slovak, parallels that of Hudanish somewhat.

Her four grandparents were Slovaks. They worked as miners, factory workers and domestics for wealthy Anglo-Saxon families in Pennsylvania, all of whom died by the time Fabian was seven. They went to Slovak churches and preferred to speak Eastern Slovak dialects with their children, but the same children, Fabian’s parents, decided to Americanize their sons.

“My maternal grandfather worked very hard in a steel mill blast furnace all his life in America. But when he retired he didn’t have a pension, ”Fabian said, noting that Bell’s book brings back memories of his grandparents.

That was only one reason for Americanization, another being the ridicule Fabian’s mother faced when she was a schoolgirl because she only had two dresses to wear to school. To protect their children from discrimination and help them thrive in their country of birth, Fabian’s parents decided to only recognize American holidays.

“My parents didn’t teach us to speak Slovak or even a lot in front of us because they were afraid that we would speak English with a Slovak dialect,” Fabian added, admitting that he had no interest in learning Slovak when his he and brother were growing up. “We were totally Americanized.

Yet he remembers Keď som chodil do koly (When I was in school), a Slovak children’s song that her mother taught her.

Settle in the homeland of grandparents

America’s current view of different cultures has changed. Sorensen compared it to a “salad bowl,” which celebrates individual cultures and the unity of American citizenship.

In 2019, the US Census Bureau estimated that 997,098 people speak a Slavic language at home. It is not known how many of them use Slovak in their homes. Sorensen noted that the language is spoken in his house.


Read alsoAs Americans get older, Americans’ desire to reconnect with Slovakia grows Read more

In contrast, Mike Zets of Ohio, whose mother arrived in America from central Slovakia as a little girl in 1911, does not speak Slovak and does not fit into the estimate. Her mother did not want her children to learn the language because of the stigma attached to being a displaced person, Zets said.

“We were allowed to learn some basic Slovak prayers and greetings,” he said. “I can still pray the rosary in Slovak and say Dobrú noc! (Good night and Na zdravie! (Well done! / Be blessed!). “

For another reason, Fabian is not grouped together in the stats either. The human rights lawyer and actor by profession moved to Bratislava in 2009 and has been studying Slovak for eight years.

“I will live here for the rest of my life,” he said, “I want to become a Slovak citizen, so I have to learn Slovak.”

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Spectator College is a program designed to support the study and teaching of English in Slovakia, as well as to engage young people in important public issues.

22. Oct 2021 at 12:18 | Pierre Dlhopolec


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