Advocating for a multilingual public space may seem abstract or a “nice-to-have” feature for an ideal society. A recent event shocked me into the realization that language tolerance matters for life and death. Hatred towards languages begets real violence against others. We must all embrace and engage in public use of multiple languages for the sake of those who would be discriminated against on the basis of language.
Two weeks ago, someone was assaulted for speaking a language. A Somali woman, Asma Jama, was speaking Swahili publicly, in a restaurant with her family in Coon Rapids (a little North of Minneapolis), Minnesota. (Many Somalis speak Swahili fluently or even as their first language because they were born and/or raised in Kenya, the home of almost 2.5 million Somalis.) Hearing this non-English language upset a white woman, Jodie Marie Burchard-Risch, and her husband, so the woman assaulted the Swahili-speaker by dumping her beer on her and smashing her face with the glass.
Language hate. Whether Burchard-Risch attacked because of language or because Jama was Somali or Muslim, no one will know. What triggered the initial anger, though, was language.
According to an interview with Jama, Burchard-Risch initially verbally assaulted Jama, telling her that she should “go home.” The victim responded, “I’m home. I can speak English, but we choose to speak whatever language we want.”
We choose to speak whatever language we want.
Do we? What does “the public” allow us to speak?
I have been fighting for more languages in the public sphere in the US. This goal appeared abstract when I wrote about it last, and then I read this article and saw the photos of the physical cost of speaking Swahili.
A large number of Americans feel real fear and anger when they hear a language besides English. They fear someone is talking about them. They feel their own inadequacy. They feel the distance and difference between people. They feel isolated and cut off.
The above exchange happens often, though usually short of the broken glass. While Jama never experienced it during her 15 years here, I have met plenty of people who went through such terrible judgment.
I WANT MY KIDS TO SPEAK LANGUAGES! How can they when the reaction to hearing languages is this violence? Shame and defensiveness and silence naturally follow from speaking another language when this rage lurks under the surface of our culture.
Act! Learn a language!
I hope my reader doesn’t just feel bad about this incident, but does the little it takes to reverse this state of affairs.
Go learn another language!
You don’t have to be perfect or even good.
It doesn’t matter if you learn ¿Cómo está? from “Sesame Street,” now you know it. Go use it.
How about saying, Namaste to an Indian or Salaam aleykum to an Arab?
The other person may be overjoyed, surprised, or suspicious. Don’t worry about it. You have made speaking Spanish, Hindi, and Arabic in public acceptable.
Even better, say Jambo! (“Hello!”)to the next Swahili speaker you meet.
What are you doing to bring more languages to the public sphere?
Photo from Asma’s Medical Fund on GoFundMe.com.