Most people who complain about this in the US speak English only, and so remain blissfully unaware of the complications of learning another language.
My more sophisticated brothers and sisters in Europe likely learned English, and so understand the difficulties. Nevertheless, they learned their foreign language in the comfort of their local school surrounded by family and friends taking care of them.
Immigrants have it hard because of their circumstances, both the situation they left and the life they have in their new country. Learning a new language creates even more work and difficulties in addition to getting by in this new, foreign place.
Yet they learn.
When I used to teach, I remember the reaction of my students when I would add an extra reading assignment. “We don’t have time,” they would inevitably say. I would smile and tell them that one day they would learn what “busy” meant, but at the moment, they were not busy.
We are not as busy as we think. This is what many of us have to grow into when we think about immigrants, and a valuable lesson immigrants can teach the rest of us.
Let’s look more deeply into their circumstances. It’s humbling. We’ll see that the question is not, “Why don’t they learn our language?” but “How did they manage to learn our language?” At the end, I’ll give you a few ways to use your favorable circumstances to the advantage of others.
Learning Russian exhausted me
I speak and understand English without thinking. When I’m listening to English podcasts, for example, I can make my breakfast. I can read an article, and hear what my kids are saying to me. I can talk on the phone while going through my email.
Russian requires an entirely different level of focus for me, especially when I was starting. When I went to Ukraine for the first time, I remember how weak I felt with the language. Sure, I’d taken Russian for two years in high school and two years in college, but Kiev checked my comfortable reality. I was speaking and hearing Russian all day long, plus the family I lived with spoke Ukrainian, so I was listening to that and learning it. I was so exhausted that I was sleeping nine to ten hours per night.
In addition to the taxing work on my brain, the loneliness kept me in bed for long hours. While I lived in close quarters with other people, I felt so isolated. The existential distance remained unpenetrated between me and others. I couldn’t understand them well, so they had to break things down into unnuanced baby-talk. I could really only understand the facts.
From my side, I couldn’t get out my real feelings and thoughts. I could ask for bread and say I wanted to take a shower, but I couldn’t sit and speak extemporaneously about my feelings at the moment. By the time I could express a feeling, I had thought about it so long that it was already several steps removed from the original feeling. My sentences held as much flavor as triple-distilled water—wet, but not exactly satisfying.
Exhausted. That’s how I felt learning Russian in Kiev, and I studied Russian for four years. Even with a foundation, this new language overwhelmed my brain. Plus, I was learning Ukrainian.
The immigrant’s situation
So when I think of immigrants in our country I start with that baseline. While I was a “foreign student,” I was an immigrant. The difference was I had the means and intention of going home after a set period of time. The immigrant either cannot return home because of safety (as is the case for refugees) or money.
These circumstances would compound the feelings of isolation I’m familiar with. Knowing that I can’t go home, that my time in the new country likely has no end date, and that any changes in circumstances lie outside of my control, would likely bring me down. Farther.
Because I was a student, learning the language was a central task of mine in Kiev; not so for immigrants. My four years of study gave me a head start. They often have no background in the language, and they don’t get to focus on learning it; they have to work and earn a living. If they have a family, they have to do the normal things you need to do to take care of a family, like shop for groceries and drive kids around and make sure they’re doing their homework. In the time left over, one can study the new language.
If you don’t know the local language, you will not be able to get a well-paying job, so you will likely be cleaning houses, building roofs, or working in a warehouse or on a farm—or maybe a combination of the above. As tired as I was about having to hear and speak Russian (and Ukrainian) all the time, doing so after cleaning or construction for eight hours boggles my mind. How would I focus on anything?
Since so many people do not treat immigrants well, the sense of isolation must be underscored. I was an American in post-Soviet Ukraine, and so a celebrity. People went out of their way to meet me and talk to me. Girls literally fought over me. (Ok, only one time.) If I were a brown or black immigrant, viewed as a problem, potential criminal, or drain on the system, I couldn’t easily work at making myself understood to my new country. I would be depressed, not just lonely.
With tons more responsibilities and exhausting work, without much education or hope for going back to a place where my people were, where we could understand and appreciate each other, my exhaustion would overwhelm me. Yet I couldn’t sleep as much; I would have responsibilities like work and family.
Language-learning under these circumstances boggle my mind.
Help shoulder the burden
I don’t say these things to make us feel bad, but to spur us to action. If you have the luxury of any sort of stability and comfort—a decent job, a community, a good night’s sleep—you can begin to learn the languages of and serve the immigrants in your community. Here are some steps you can take.
- Don’t feel sorry for yourself.
- Prepare to do the work; don’t look at whether others are working.
- Learn the language of the immigrants. Talk to them.
- Use your time wisely to help out those who are struggling.
- Befriend our country’s guests as a good host.