Bear others’ burdens by learning their language

Are you ready to serve with your language-learning?
Are you ready to serve with your language-learning?

My last post, “Assimilation is a two-way street: Learn your neighbor’s language,” created vehement reactions in a Facebook forum for polyglots. My post suggested that one could and should help immigrants and refugees by learning their language. (For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to both immigrants and refugees as “immigrants,” since refugees are a special sub-class of immigrants.)

Let me be clearer about the paradigm I’m working from. In my mind, the immigrant is a guest and the native is a host. Both have a role to play. Moreover, the host is not allowed to say, “If I were a guest I would…” The host simply does the work of the host. By the same token, the guest can only do the work of the guest. Each bears the burden of the other.

I saw two major lines of argumentation against my post. The more emotional one took the tone of, “If they want to come here, they should learn our language!” This argument comes from the desire for life to stay the same, and from angry resistance to change. When immigrants arrive—the thinking goes—our country changes, and usually for the worse. The quicker and more efficiently the others can become like us, the faster we can get life back to normal. At that time, I will no longer have to worry.

The work of restoring my comfort thus belongs to others. They came here; let them learn. Let them contribute to my society. Let them talk to me not only in a way that I understand, but also in a way that I can enjoy and feel good about.

The more sanguine line of argumentation sounded like, “Immigrants will be better off learning our language, so learning their language will hinder their progress.” This side supposes—correctly—that the immigrant will have an easier time the quicker they learn the language. If you speak the majority language, you have an obligation to speak to the other in it so that they can learn more quickly.

This argument assumes, however, that the immigrant does not have enough opportunities to speak the language of the new country without you. I have worked with refugees and I meet new ones all the time, and I noticed that opportunities to speak English abound. Granted, many countries strictly segregate immigrants, making mixing with locals more difficult than it is in the US. Nevertheless, many immigrants in the US speak only basic, superficial English because they learn English in classes and practice at the grocery store, but do not have American friends to have deeper, more sophisticated conversations with.

If either line is consistent with itself, that the immigrant’s imperative is to learn the local language, then the logical step would be to engage the immigrant in long, sophisticated conversations. They should sit with the immigrant, eat with him, spend time with him—in other words, befriend the immigrant. In this way they can ensure that the immigrant will learn the local language, if this is really the point of the argument.

In my last post I said, “Liberals want to compensate for past wrongs by facilitating the ‘other’ to become more like them; the conservative wants the ‘other’ to stop complaining about past wrongs. Both sides want to put the bad past behind us.” The more emotional argument above I would bundle the typical conservative line, because it imposes with power on the immigrant. The more sanguine one I would group with the typical liberal line because it looks to provide a path to privilege for the immigrant. I disagree with both because they impose the privileged native way of doing things on the disadvantaged immigrant. Neither wants to take on the hard work of learning the language of the other, but expects the other to learn their language.

Impose only on yourself.

One person in the discussion made sense. He said that he would be immigrating to another country, and, therefore, had a duty to learn that language. I agree completely with that statement.

So how can I be consistent between disagreeing with the first point and agreeing with the latter? One says, “They should learn,” while the other said, “I should learn.” I can only agree when the imposition to learn a language is placed on oneself, not on another person.

The immigrant has the duty to learn the language of the new country, but the native has the duty to learn the language of the immigrant. A good guest does not impose on the host, but the good host provides everything for the guest. Each has a duty and work to do, and does not force the other. Each contributes to the other.

In the US, I take my role of host seriously. It becomes awkward when I meet a Somali refugee who has lived in Minnesota for 20 years, when I have lived here for less than 4. But they came to my country and had to learn my language; my move to Minnesota was much easier. For this reason, I will learn the language of immigrants, but I still bear the burden to help them learn mine.

How do you serve others with your language-learning?

Photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser via / CC BY-NC-SA

7 thoughts on “Bear others’ burdens by learning their language

  1. Douglas O. Person

    Very well said brother! I have seen “both sides of the coin” and been on “both ends of the stick” having lived as an “immigrant” or “foreigner” in East Africa for 20 years and I am eternally grateful for all of the “host” or “native” folks who helped me to learn their languages and navigate their cultures, while at the same time I had opportunities to contribute as the “immigrant/outsider” struggling to become an “insider.” In the same way, now living back in my home culture, I have the privilege of helping (along with my wife) my friends from East Africa to learn our language and navigate this culture while also being a sort of bridge person who understands their language and culture and I am enriched (and I believe our whole society is enriched) by their new voice and perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This sounds so much like my situation, brother. I’ve been at the mercy of strangers so many times in my life that I will be forever grateful. As a result, if I’m going to act on my gratitude, my job is to offer the same level of kindness to those strangers who ended up in my town in the US.


  2. Well said, indeed! I find that discussing ‘privilege’ with members of a privileged cohort very often elicits the kinds of responses your experiencing. Adding the fact that this is a complex issue that some folks want to characterize as a zero-sum game (ie. “either we learn their language *OR* they learn ours”) and you have a recipe for…… well, something that doesn’t look like constructive conversation:(

    I hear you though! This line of thinking is exactly what continues to drive me to keep polishing my Mandarin— I look at the standard of English that we demand of newcomers, and I wonder if I could meet that standard in Chinese when context makes it appropriate?

    Willy Brandt (former German Chancellor) has a good quote on this subject: “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”. You can easily make the business case for this quote (buying/selling), but I think your metaphor is applicable all the same— if we’re being good hosts and citizens, speaking the language of our guests and neighbours is wonderful social glue to help bring us together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Beautiful. I’m glad you picked up on the host-guest metaphor I’m using. I think if the countries to which the refugees come took “hosting” seriously, we would have fewer problems. This is why we don’t hear about the refugee crisis in Lebanon. They take hosting seriously. (Though speaking the same language surely helps.)

      I wish it were as easy to find a Chinese class in the US as it is to find an English one. Even in California it’s not easy. We have tens of thousands of Somalis here, but only one Somali class I know of.

      Keep learning Chinese! Even if you’re way worse than the immigrants, I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Aaron

    I was the one who said “They should learn”, however I am majoring in the second most spoken language in my country. Yes, I major in Spanish in the USA and one job pathway I’m considering is working with immigrants. I simply believe that if I were to go to ‘x’ country, I should learn their language. It is a nice idea… I am always open for people learning another language, but I believe the burden is on them to somewhat assimilate, just as I’ve done when I moved to the US. Customs, holidays can always be kept… people celebrate Ramadan, Hanukkah, Divali in the US all the time. That is what is great about this nation… we have common values while keeping our customs as long as they are in accordance with the nations’ law. When people are fleeing their homes as refugees into the West [even though Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have the means of taking refugees in while the West doesn’t] there are English courses provided by the government. It is a heartwarming idea and I hope that people make the choice of learning the language of an immigrant or a refugee if they are neighbors or go to school together. I believe over time assimilation takes place if the individual coming to ‘x’ nation is willing to assimilate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. Your description helps me understand much better where you’re coming from.

      The main difference I’m trying to convey regards the use of pronouns. “I should” is entirely different from “they should.” Thus I find more convincing your argument that, “if I were to go to ‘x’ country, I should learn their language,” than, “I believe the burden is on them to somewhat assimilate.” Our job is to work in the service of our fellow human beings, I believe.

      I’m happy you’re studying Spanish. To be honest, I think it would be totally feasible–and helpful–to just require Spanish for all students.

      I have never met an immigrant in the US who didn’t think it would be a good idea to learn English. I heard an interview with a old man from Russia who has been in the US for a while. He said learning English is really hard for him, but it is obviously important. As a result, I find the argument “they should learn English” as a straw man.

      I also like that our government offers so much to teach English to foreigners in the US. Along the same lines, I have relatives in Switzerland, and one of them teaches German at night to refugees. It’s good for host countries to do this. I just wish that it would be as easy for me to find even a single class of a language from among the refugees. But there would not be enough interest to keep it going.

      Overall, I think that it is my job to work hard to learn languages for the sake of others. I think others will be better off learning languages–just as you say. But the burden of work needs to be on me myself.


  4. Pingback: Why don’t they learn our language? or How did they manage to do it? – Loving Language

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