26 February 2013

let's talk about speaking that local language

I'm from the States.

Have you ever heard someone outright say or imply that foreigners who move to the States just need to learn to speak English?

I have.

Many years ago, I think I might have actually said it myself. Something to the effect of: "If they want to come live in our country, they need to learn to communicate in English."

I don't feel nearly so dogmatic about it, now.

Maybe because I've walked more than a single mile in those shoes. And I probably have many more to walk...

There's a joke you hear circulating in many expat communities. I've heard a few variations, but it basically goes like this:
What do you call someone who speaks two languages?  
~ Canadian
What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
~ European or South American
What do you call someone who speaks four languages?  
~ Asian 
What do you call someone who speaks five or more languages? 
~ African
What do you call someone who speaks only one language? 
~ American
And people laugh - especially in those expatriate circles.

Why is it funny? Because... in the majority of instances, it is true - sadly and sometimes embarrassingly so.

Connor Ludovissy, in an article titled "Monolingual America" published on line in September of 2011, writes
...The vast majority of us are more or less globally illiterate, despite the growing number of people in the United States for whom English is not a first language. In the age of globalization, United States citizens must learn to speak more than English or face the consequences – a weaker position internationally and an increasingly difficult time communicating back in the States. 
According to the United States Census Bureau, 47 million United States residents reported that they spoke a language other than English at home in 2000. In 2007, that number jumped to 55 million. That’s about 14 and 18 percent of the population, respectively. Not only that, but Americans do business all over the world and offer aid to numerous countries in times of distress. We negotiate with foreign governments and merchants, we tour foreign countries and we study abroad at foreign schools. Yet only 26 percent of adult Americans claim to speak a foreign language well enough to maintain a conversation, according to the Gallup organization. 
How could this happen? How could a country with such far-reaching influence have so little experience with foreign languages? How could the so-called “melting pot of the world” be an English-only environment? 
The answer is pretty simple – our disregard for other languages probably stems from good, old fashioned arrogance. We perceive that we do not need to learn any languages other than English, so we don’t. As a powerful country, we prefer to make other countries learn our language instead of learning theirs.
As one who is working on learning bits and pieces of both 3rd and 4th languages, as one who still struggles to communicate in the truly local heart languages of the people who live all around me...

Can I encourage you to be gracious and welcoming when the Lord causes your path to intersect with that of someone who doesn't speak English? 

Can I also encourage you, that when God gives you the opportunity to friend someone who does not speak English as his/her first language, take the time and make the effort to learn some words in their mother tongue... their heart language... instead of insisting on English.


  1. I actually know quite a few immigrants who have learned at least a little English. Almost all of them are Chinese, A few from Eastern Europe, and one Mexican - and yes, he was legal.

    One of the Chinese was a retired Physics professor who had moved here with his wife to be close to their sons, one of whom worked for Dow Chemical here in Midland. When I first met him, I was to train him to work at McDonalds where I was a manager. He barely knew a word of English, and had an interpreter with him for our training. Less than a year later, I could carry on a conversation - in English - with both him and his wife. I could also say a few basic words and phrases in Chinese so that I could greet them in their own language.

    I think it's a matter of simple respect that when you move someplace where they speak a different language, you learn their language. And it goes both ways. When I went to Haiti with Tim's Dad, I learned as much Creole as I could while I was there, and the few locals that taught me tried just as hard to learn English at the same time. When I lived in Georgia, there were a number of Mexicans I encountered and worked with, so I used my limited Spanish and tried to learn more so I could talk to them, and they in turn tried to learn English to talk to me.

    So yes, I do think that anyone who comes to this country should learn English. I think it's rude - even insulting - if they don't at least make the effort. But I also think it's rude for Americans not to try to learn the native language of people they want to talk to. Too many people in this country demand respect, but don't want to give it. If they would first give their own respect (i.e. learning someone else's language), they might be surprised to find that they would get it back without having to demand it.

    1. i agree.

      my point? it is easy for those who've never been placed in a situation where their language is the minority, who've never had to live cross-culturally for an extended period of time to simplify it and say - "they wanna live here? then they learn to speak english." and sadly, some of those with the most vicious vitriol are those who should recognize that they have the most reason to offer grace.

      learning another language is hard, requires time and significant amounts of effort - intellectual and emotional. and it goes beyond simply learning words - each language has its own way of thinking/world view incorporated within it. dealing with numbers in the local language here is incredibly hard for me - because it all works off of a base 5 math system - and it is hard. being able to read... being able to string a series of words together in a coherent sentence... even being able to participate in a conversation... does not mean fluent. and some people, even after years and years - they still won't be stellar or comfortable in that second language.

      it isn't the simple cut and dried issue many would like to label it. and, for those who've only ever spoken their mother tongue, it seems hypocritical to hear "they've gotta learn to communicate in my language!" proclaimed...


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