Wednesday, February 12, 2014

“Why can’t they just learn English?”

As promised, the follow up to my previous post:

Many “monolingual” Americans express their frustration with immigrants and visitors to our country with an exasperated gasp such as the one above. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been married for any length of time can attest, venting frustration rarely leads to positive discussion or better understanding. Until we get past our initial emotional response and start an open and honest dialogue, we only contribute to more anger and frustration. So let’s dialogue.

I have three points that are worth considering next time you have an encounter with someone who didn’t grow up in the U.S.:

First, a strong accent is not a failure to learn English. Americans all over the country have strong accents, particularly those of the Northeast or the Deep South. Without some familiarity with an accent, some may find it difficult to understand and even unpleasant to hear because it isn’t “proper.” However, instead of criticizing or judging others because they have an accent, we should take extra effort to understand because they’ve made quite a bit of progress in learning English. During college I had a professor from the Philippines. Some of the other students complained that they couldn’t understand him, but I didn’t think he had that strong of an accent. I think the difference is that I tried to listen where they tried to judge.

When I’m in a situation where I have difficulty understanding because of an accent, I recognize that the other person has made the effort to learn English, and I politely ask them to repeat or speak up.

Second, speaking in a foreign language in public is not failure to learn English. You cannot tell, just by hearing someone speak a foreign language, whether or not that person has made any attempt to learn English or whether or not that person can speak English well. There are a number of reasons why someone would speak in a foreign language in public. Here are just a few:

1.      Speaking a learned language is taxing, especially when one is more familiar and comfortable with their first language. Even with the many years of experience with the Spanish language, my wife and I typically default to English when we’re talking to each other, even at our Spanish-language church services. If there’s no urgent need to speak in English, many people will default to their first language.
2.      English is still foreign to their present company. Many immigrants to the United States still have significant relational ties back to their country of origin. These friends and relatives may come to visit from time to time, and due to the short duration of their stay in the U.S., they’ve never felt the need to establish a firm grasp on the English language. Consider the many current and former military service members who spent a number of years stationed overseas with only a basic vocabulary in the host country’s language. Immigrants with varying degrees a fluency in English may opt to speak in another language in public because they are with visiting friends or relatives who do not know English that well.
3.      Their first language is foreign to their children. Unless someone moves here at the end of their school-age years or as an adult, chances are English will become their default language. Children are in very real danger of failing to learn the language of their country of origin and thus lose all ability to communicate with family and friends left behind. Many immigrants feel it is their duty to pass on the language to their children in order to preserve that link to their past, so they try to speak with them in their first language whenever possible, even in public. It can be challenging to grow up apart from your grandparents, but add in the complete inability to communicate with them and you lose more than just your cultural heritage.

Third, learning English is not a short process. Natural-born citizens typically have twelve plus years in a fully immersive English-language educational environment. They grow up in homes where English is spoken and someone reads Dr. Seuss and Spot books to them until they learn to recognize words and sound out syllables. An immigrant coming to the United States doesn’t usually have this kind of upbringing in English. If they come at the end of their high school years or early adulthood, they typically do not have enough time in American educational institutions to develop a firm grasp of the language before having to find a job to support themselves and their family. Without English language skills, they are limited to working jobs with minimal English language requirements. Picking up English through interaction at work is slow, but over time a specialized English vocabulary can develop. Someone who couldn’t navigate an English conversation to open up a bank account can tell you anything you’d like to know about your car in English; how it runs, why it’s making that sound, what parts you need to have replaced soon, etc. Standing in line behind this person at Fifth Third may make you frustrated. Why won’t this person just learn English? The truth is he has been learning English—better than you if you’ve never worked as an auto mechanic. The learning process will likely take years before he can operate comfortably in most circumstances where English is necessary. Give people credit for the amount that they’ve learned.

But why can’t they take classes or buy language learning software? Some do, but immigrants without English language skills usually have to work more hours at low-paying jobs just to get by. After 50, 60, 70+ hours of work, would you want to spend the remainder of your waking hours studying English or holding your kids, kissing your wife, and talking on the phone with your relatives who you may never see again? Some people may sacrifice “family time” for a period of time in order to complete a degree. Learning English, especially without a strong base of English education, is not something that can be accomplished in a couple years of study. It can take decades before someone has fully functional English language abilities. Imagine if you wanted to get a B.A. with a major in French. That’s a four year degree. How long would it take you, assuming you continued working a full-time job? Give people a little grace because language learning takes time, and you have no idea how much time they’ve been working at it.

To round out this terribly long post, consider that the immigrant who won’t learn English is a false stereotype. People want to be able to communicate. Communication breakdowns are just as frustrating to them as to you who speak English fluently. If we are willing to accommodate and work with someone who has dyslexia or a reading disability, are we willing to give grace to those with a greater disadvantage—immigrants struggling to learn a whole other language trying to succeed in American society? When you see someone speaking in a foreign language in public, don’t judge. You don’t know where they are at in the process or what steps they’ve taken (or have been unable to take) to get a better grasp of the English language.

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