Language Deficiency

Image courtesy of nuttakit /

“I want to make friends with someone who isn’t American,” my oldest daughter said at dinner Monday night.  School started here on Tuesday, and my oldest daughter began middle school.  “Not just so I can ‘be nice,'” she continued, “but because I think it would be really interesting.”  People from other cultures pique the interest of my daughter.  They bring experiences and languages that fascinate and teach her.

Significantly, Americans usually define non-native English speakers as deficient.  People who do not speak English well or at all “lack” English skills.  They are “non-“native English speakers.  One who lacks English may be an upper-class French adult, or a lower-class Ethiopian teenager; both fall into a single category: English deficient.  American life requires some amount of English.  This communication skill is one that we have to possess or gain.  So the skill of speaking English is a skill that one possesses or lacks, and the failure to communicate falls on the non-English speaker to make up for their deficiency.

This attitude deprives English-speakers of understanding others and themselves in a deeper way.  Non-native English speakers often conceal knowledge and skills.  Those who lack English, except for the most severly developmentally disabled, speak another langauge (at least).  In this way the French-speaker differs greatly from the Ethiopian Amharic-speaker.  I befriended a woman from Eritrea whose English was very limited.  Nevertheless, she spoke her native Konama, plus Tigrinye, Amharic, and some Arabic.  Even though many graduate students in the US lack this sort of linguistic skill, this Eritrean woman was categorized as deficient, because of her lack of English.  She was expected to take ESL courses to gain more English.  No one seemed to be interested in the linguistic knowledge she possessed.

Monolingual English existence in the US renders us blind to the relationships and information we miss everyday.  We remain complacent that we get all the information we need because we possess the most essential communicaiton skill: English.  Even when we travel overseas, we can get everything we need through English.  As we move through Vietnam, Tajikistan, and Bolivia, we can always find an English-speaker–until we can’t.  Frustration confronts us: How do we communicate?  Then we see the wall between us and that person and all the valuable information he or she may possess.  This barrier separates us partly because of my lack of Vietnamese, Tajik, or Spanish skill, which I have been lacking all along.  This experience makes me see my own language deficiency.

Everyday in the US such people exist behind these self-imposed barriers.  If we learn to confront that wall between us and the many non-English speakers in our US cities, we can make new relationships and gain new insight.  Because of my study of Farsi, I met our Iranian neighbors, who speak very little English.  I learned about their lives and their Bahai’i faith.  Moreover, they loved communicating with me, as difficult as my lack of Farsi skill made our conversation.  Overcoming my language deficiency brought me to the other side of this barrier.

When we native-speakers of English view English-learners as deficient, we miss what we can learn from them.  This quadrilingual Eritrean can teach English monolinguals how to learn languages or how to translate or how to live through difficult circumstances.  Realizing that we are in a position to learn from non-native English speakers changes the power dynamic.  Rather than try to fill up their deficiencies, we try to fill our own.  Rather than teach, we learn.  Instead of waiting till we travel to see our deficiencies, we can try to befriend those around us who possess language skills that we lack.

Do you live near or work with people who do not speak your language as a native?  What have you learned from them?  Are you a non-native speaker of the dominant language around you?  Do people classify you as deficient, whether explicitly or implicitly?

Postscript: The idea that we see non-native English speakers as deficient was inspired by a chapter from Martha H. Bigelow’s Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, Racialized Identity, and Education in a New Land (Wiley-Blackwell 2010), wherein she discusses the challenges of teaching English literacy to Somalis, who “lack” literacy in their own language.

Definitely *not* loving language

Miranda Washinawatok Menominee

Ignorance of languages can exacerbate mistrust.  The United States’–and many other countries’–history demonstrates oppression of language as a natural part of suppressing culture.  This article demonstrates that indigenous languages continue to strike fear in the hearts of some non-indigenous Americans.  Immigrant languages can cause the same problem.  In the 90s I witnessed an altercation on a public bus between a working-class white guy who started yelling at a pair of working-class Latinos who were speaking Spanish.  The white guy appealed to the driver: “You never know if they’re talking about you!”

That the ones in power feel threatened strikes me.  Whites do not risk an “Indian uprising” or anything like that, and Latinos seem to adapt to white political structures.  Nevertheless, the expression of thoughts in ways that whites cannot understand is a threat on its own.  Perhaps an underlying mistrust is coming to the surface.

What do you think the solution is?  My solution is to teach Spanish in the schools, from the first grade, alongside another community language, depending on the location–Menominee, Hmong, whatever.  Creating a bi- or trilingual population will smooth over the mistrust.  Finns decided to require Swedish language education for all the population because of its Swedish minority and proximity to Sweden.  And the Finns’ educational system does well, as far as I know.  I think Americans are capable of learning more languages–our indigenous and immigrants demonstrate this.

Language and Authority

Tsee iz fahran ah Subway?
Image by angus mcdiarmid via Flickr

A man I met grew up in the US speaking Yiddish at home.  He used this language to subvert authority and make a deep connection in a unique way.

As he would set up Jewish children’s day camps in the Soviet Union, he often had to speak in front of Jewish audiences.  The government would supply an interpreter.  He had no reason to trust this interpreter, but he did not know Russian.  Intuitively, he thought the interpreter may be manipulating his words.  During that time, he was probably justified.

Once in the 1980s he was standing before a group of elderly Jews.  He began his talk in Yiddish: “Does anyone here speak Yiddish?”  A majority of hands went up.  So he continued the rest of his talk in Yiddish–and his interpreter could not understand the rest.

Through the use of another language he was able to subvert the Soviet authority.  He connected to his audience directly, without the intermediate, untrusted, self-serving government interpreter.

Furthermore, he made a historical point.  An elderly woman approached him afterwards, weeping.  She told him she had not heard Yiddish spoken in an official setting since the October Revolution, when she was a little girl.  This man not only conveyed his message, but the language itself reverberated with history and touch the individuals of his audience.