Shoulder the burden: Your language or mine?

How can you should her burden with language love?
How can you should her burden with language love?

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.
Loving them by loving language

Bear others’ burdens by learning their language

Are you ready to serve with your language-learning?
Are you ready to serve with your language-learning?

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.

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