I have a difficult time sympathizing with those who belittle or degrade immigrants to the United States that speak English as their second language. It is important to remember that the U.S. does not have an official language; seriously, you can google it for yourself if you don’t believe me. The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn and as nonsensical as that may seem, both facts are true. So why is it that so many people born in the U.S. look down on those who don’t speak English well when it isn’t even the official language of the country?
This question bothers me from time to time and it has once again reared its head to gnaw at my conscience through the combination of current events and what I have been reading recently. Last week’s book review was about the novel Love in the Time of Cholera, which was written by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez and originally published in Spanish as El amor en los tiempos del cólera. Despite my two years studying Spanish in high school and an additional year in college, I do not speak or read the language very well and had to read a version translated into English.
The reason I bring this up is that direct translation, especially between English and Spanish, doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Context is an integral part of speaking Spanish and since English borrows from many other languages, it doesn’t always follow such logical guidelines. As beautiful as the prose in the edition I read was, something is inherently lost in the translation. Though I am still technically reading his words, they have been filtered into another language and I cannot truly say I read the novel in its original form.
I have come to terms with this but what I cannot abide is hearing those who were born in the United States of America like myself deride non-native English speakers because they don’t speak the language as well as we do. This ignorance seems to come from a lack of empathy; it is not fostered out of spite or apathy because it would never even occur to us to identify that way. We don’t encounter the type of situation that would require us to be somewhere we don’t understand the primary spoken language. There is an attitude in the U.S. that speaking English is the most basic thing you can do and if someone is incapable of that, then they must be stupid or inferior.
Condescension is natural a byproduct of this, whether it is intentional or otherwise. I find it truly ironic that many people born in the United States look down on non-native English speakers when they themselves barely speak English correctly, let alone write according to proper grammatical structure or spelling; go on your Facebook news feed if you need proof of this. I understand that colloquial expressions and slang are found throughout languages and cultures, but to hear someone complain about “that foreigner” getting hired in 2017 and bringing up the fact that they shouldn’t have even been considered because of their accent embarrasses me to no end.
In my experience speaking Spanish with native speakers, both in and outside of school settings, they have been nothing but accommodating and patient with me. Correction happens and as I said in my editorial on interpersonal criticism, both parties benefit as long as they are open to criticism.
My father comes in contact with many people from countries in Asia through the nature of his work and I have seen him speak Mandarin with Chinese co-workers who always encourage and correct him with joy in their eyes; not because he makes mistakes while trying to speak their language, but because he put himself out there and tried to meet them halfway. Quite different from the sentiment above, isn’t it?
Before you chastise me for making such generalizations, I am sure there are people from other countries that condescend to English speakers who try to speak their language, just as there are those of us born in the United States who understand the skill required to speak two or more languages. However, these are the trends that have I have noticed.
A story went viral a little over a month ago about a woman who took her father, who is from Mexico, to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For those who are unaware, one of the main characters is played by Diego Luna, an actor from Mexico City who speaks English with an accent because Spanish is his first language.
I will link the original post here, but the essence of the story is that seeing someone on the silver screen who spoke English with an accent that wasn’t a cultural stereotype or a minor character touched the aforementioned father on a deeply emotional level. Diego Luna saw the post after it went viral and responded, showing that a simple thing such as diverse casting, based on merit over skin color or spoken language, can make a difference.
Our diversity is what makes the United States great and we should be accommodating and understanding toward those who come to it. The Rogue One example is just one way of demonstrating the need for our films to reflect our diverse society, but it also brings home the point that no matter what language you speak, or whether you do so fluently or with an accent, we all just wants to relate to one another.
The next time you hear someone struggle with their English, try to remember that they most likely speak at least one other language fluently, and that is something to be both celebrated and encouraged. As a dear friend of mine said recently in a Facebook post, “…“monolingualism” is just one more step towards “monoculturalism”. Hence, if you are lucky enough to speak another language and you consider it part of your identity, keep using it with pride and master it, and make sure your children do the same thing. Keep this nation great. Remember that language is an essential part of our ancestors’ cultural inheritance.”
So, what do you think? If you were born in the U.S., do you see the same sort of trends? If you’re from a country where English isn’t the primary language, does your experience differ? I would love to hear/read your opinion.