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.