Recently I went to a fundraising dinner for Green Card Voices, a group that records oral histories of immigrants in the US. I love the way that they humanize immigrant experiences from numerous points of view.
During the program, they put us through an exercise that I have suggested for people to try for a long time that will help us understand immigrants through learning languages.
“We have purposely seated speakers of multiple languages at each table,” the Yemeni presenter announced on stage. “Everyone has to learn how to say three things in all the languages at the table: ‘What’s your name?’ ‘How are you?’ and ‘Welcome.’”
- See tahay? (Southern Dialect) or Iska warran? (Northern Dialect)
- Soo dhowow!
- Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?
- Nǐ hǎo ma?
- Huānyíng guānglín!
“Who is ready to present?” the same woman asked from the stage after a few minutes.
One of the front tables was brave, and a woman ventured to pronounce the phrases in Somali. Very impressive.
“Richard looks ready to present!” a colleague of mine volunteered next.
I went up. I nailed the Somali, but struggled with Chinese. “Can I phone a friend?” I asked, and brought up my Chinese table-mate. He fed me the lines which I dutifully repeated.
So what was the point of that?
“We are immigrants, and we struggle to learn English and to speak it every day,” the same Yemeni woman explained. “And sometimes we sound silly and people laugh at us. You can now feel a little bit how we feel.
“Also, we wanted you to see the value of immigrants. They are able to do many things. You can see how they can teach, as well.”
I wrote about this most important point here previously. I could make this statement from a place of power, as a well-placed, American, native-English speaker. “Hey, you should listen to those people. I did, and I benefited,” I can say.
She, however, had to make her plea from the outside. “Won’t you please listen to me?” She must extend herself and make herself vulnerable.
This tough yet sweet young woman had a lot more to say about her immigrant story. Hear the speech I heard here:
And here her immigrant story here:
Listen to her!
Post-script: She and I chatted for a bit in Arabic, but I had a tough time understanding, not helped by the fact that one of my ears was plugged in a rather noisy room.
What have you learned from learning languages, even speaking them badly?
Photo from Green Card Voices.