Language Deficiency

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“I want to make friends with someone who isn’t American,” my oldest daughter said at dinner Monday night.  School started here on Tuesday, and my oldest daughter began middle school.  “Not just so I can ‘be nice,'” she continued, “but because I think it would be really interesting.”  People from other cultures pique the interest of my daughter.  They bring experiences and languages that fascinate and teach her.

Significantly, Americans usually define non-native English speakers as deficient.  People who do not speak English well or at all “lack” English skills.  They are “non-“native English speakers.  One who lacks English may be an upper-class French adult, or a lower-class Ethiopian teenager; both fall into a single category: English deficient.  American life requires some amount of English.  This communication skill is one that we have to possess or gain.  So the skill of speaking English is a skill that one possesses or lacks, and the failure to communicate falls on the non-English speaker to make up for their deficiency.

This attitude deprives English-speakers of understanding others and themselves in a deeper way.  Non-native English speakers often conceal knowledge and skills.  Those who lack English, except for the most severly developmentally disabled, speak another langauge (at least).  In this way the French-speaker differs greatly from the Ethiopian Amharic-speaker.  I befriended a woman from Eritrea whose English was very limited.  Nevertheless, she spoke her native Konama, plus Tigrinye, Amharic, and some Arabic.  Even though many graduate students in the US lack this sort of linguistic skill, this Eritrean woman was categorized as deficient, because of her lack of English.  She was expected to take ESL courses to gain more English.  No one seemed to be interested in the linguistic knowledge she possessed.

Monolingual English existence in the US renders us blind to the relationships and information we miss everyday.  We remain complacent that we get all the information we need because we possess the most essential communicaiton skill: English.  Even when we travel overseas, we can get everything we need through English.  As we move through Vietnam, Tajikistan, and Bolivia, we can always find an English-speaker–until we can’t.  Frustration confronts us: How do we communicate?  Then we see the wall between us and that person and all the valuable information he or she may possess.  This barrier separates us partly because of my lack of Vietnamese, Tajik, or Spanish skill, which I have been lacking all along.  This experience makes me see my own language deficiency.

Everyday in the US such people exist behind these self-imposed barriers.  If we learn to confront that wall between us and the many non-English speakers in our US cities, we can make new relationships and gain new insight.  Because of my study of Farsi, I met our Iranian neighbors, who speak very little English.  I learned about their lives and their Bahai’i faith.  Moreover, they loved communicating with me, as difficult as my lack of Farsi skill made our conversation.  Overcoming my language deficiency brought me to the other side of this barrier.

When we native-speakers of English view English-learners as deficient, we miss what we can learn from them.  This quadrilingual Eritrean can teach English monolinguals how to learn languages or how to translate or how to live through difficult circumstances.  Realizing that we are in a position to learn from non-native English speakers changes the power dynamic.  Rather than try to fill up their deficiencies, we try to fill our own.  Rather than teach, we learn.  Instead of waiting till we travel to see our deficiencies, we can try to befriend those around us who possess language skills that we lack.

Do you live near or work with people who do not speak your language as a native?  What have you learned from them?  Are you a non-native speaker of the dominant language around you?  Do people classify you as deficient, whether explicitly or implicitly?

Postscript: The idea that we see non-native English speakers as deficient was inspired by a chapter from Martha H. Bigelow’s Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, Racialized Identity, and Education in a New Land (Wiley-Blackwell 2010), wherein she discusses the challenges of teaching English literacy to Somalis, who “lack” literacy in their own language.


11 thoughts on “Language Deficiency

  1. That’s a fascinating subject and I agree with your viewpoint. In most of my travels I’ve met individuals who speak some degree of English which makes it easier, but probably less of a learning experience. However, I was visiting a friend in a small town in Germany (I don’t speak German at all) and the majority of people spoke no English. It was difficult, frustrating at times, and I definitely felt deficient. I ended up learning enough of the basics to get through the visit. Interestingly, my 16 month old niece’s mother is Costa Rican and one set of my niece’s grandparents don’t speak English. It’s amazing at how fast she can pick up both languages. Her vocabulary is still small but she always says the English and Spanish version of the words she knows. If she wants water she’ll say, “agua” and then follow it with “water.” I think she’ll be at an advantage later in life and perhaps see the world a little differently. Great post. – Craig


    1. Thanks, Craig. I like how that frustration brought you to learn some basics. I think often the frustration can make people not want to try any more. I feel that when we look hard at what we are deficient in, we can become better.

      Also, that’s a great story about your neice. I hope she keeps up her languages–before she learns her 3rd (German from her uncle?).


  2. Hi! I share the same idea with you. Oh by the way I’m a non native English speaker. I’m a filipino who speaks English and currently learning Spanish. I believe that by learning other language we are reuniting with our long lost brothers as I believe that we all came from one being. I learned English even before I went to school because it’s an unofficial but widely spoken language in my country. But being able to speak Filipino and English, I feel imprisoned. I realized this the most when I went to find friends online, and I can only speak to people mostly from my country and from the English-speaking countries like the US, UK, Australia etc. I hope there’s more blogger who shares the same point of view. This is not an issue with nationality and language. At the end of the day, we are all human beings who live in this world, equal and free.


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