Opponents to my community-language approach to language learning persistently argue that immigrants would and should prefer to speak the language of their new community rather than their mother tongue. When I insist on speaking their language, therefore, I’m doing them a disservice by working against their advancement in society.
To be honest, I’m not against this idea. When I was still in college, I got a job at the Spring International Language Center as a “conversation partner,” that is, I got paid to chat with small groups of English language learners. The students came to the US to intensive English classes.
These were not immigrants, however, but visiting students. They came to the school with the expectation that they would learn English before returning home. Each day consisted of English classes, group meals, and afternoon outings. Speaking to them in their language during class, of course, would have detracted from their experience and expectation.
This experience differs from immigrants and refugees, however, who will stay in our country for an indefinite amount of time. They have to make money, pay for living expenses on a regular basis, and organize their own activities (when the opportunity arises). For each of these experiences, speaking English—or whatever language of their new home—plays a part, but it is not the goal. Making a living and establishing themselves in their new country come first.
I want to make lighter the burdens these immigrants carry. So I try to learn their language.
When I was a college professor, I would occasionally assign additional reading. After a collective groan, students would insist that they were too busy to take on more reading. I would smile and tell them that, one day, they would understand what busy was.
During that same period, a friend told me about a refugee family in Seattle. Both husband and wife cleaned houses for a living. One Saturday, the husband had to take three buses to get to the nice part of town where he was working. As he came home late in the evening, the buses stopped running. He was stranded. He slept in the bus shelter until the early morning when the buses started running again and returned home. I have never even imagined that level of busy.
Of those two groups, who has the free time to learn languages?
Of course, the latter folks would benefit greatly from learning English, and the former group already knows English. It would benefit the latter group more than the former.
In fact, the refugees were learning English. They were taking ESL classes, in spite of being completely exhausted. The students were not learning languages, in spite of hours in their dorm rooms spent socializing and smoking pot.
Speaking English for immigrants is hard work, and they are working hard beyond that.
What I would like to do, since I have time, energy, and a desire to help, is to shoulder some of their burden. If I see them at the bus stop, I can give them the option:
Would you prefer to relax your brain and speak your language, or to work your brain and speak English?
If they prefer to practice English, far be it from me to insist that they speak their language.
If they prefer to speak their language, far be it from me to say it’s too hard.