Seek to understand rather than to be understood

Foreign Language Bookshop neon sign
Foreign Language Bookshop neon sign (Photo credit: avlxyz)

If language education improved in the US, we would have to undergo a cultural shift.  The Prayer of Saint Francis states this shift clearly as he writes, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek . . . to be understood, as to understand.”  Our citizens need to see that those who come from outside the US have something to teach us to become better Americans.  This shift must emphasize hearing others and putting forth the effort so we can understand them.  We need to understand them more than to be understood by them.

At the present, the US speaks its own English.  We listen to those who speak English because as a culture we do not put resources into learning languages.  We put forth few resources into schools to teach foreign languages.  When we work or socialize among people who speak other languages, we do not put time or energy into speaking their languages.  By US law we provide resources for kids to learn English so they can access education.  We provide English language education to adults, as resources permit.  Overseas we look for those who speak English–those who have capitulated to our need to talk to them.  In short we put forth efforts for people to understand us.

If we shifted our vision of education, we would emphasize how we understand others over how others understand us.  We would inject more resources into language education in schools, devoting more time in the school day for it, perhaps taking time away from other subjects.  In the workplace we would put time and energy into learning the languages of the people we work with.  In our schools, all kids would have to spend hours learning a new language, not just new immigrants; even adults who already finished school would learn the languages of immigrants.  Before we travelled overseas we would take time to learn and understand the language, and we would continue learning during our trip. Resources would go towards learning other ways of speaking.

The benefits of learning a language ultimately outweigh the costs.  It takes resources to learn languages: a little money and a ton of time.  You have to sound dumb sometimes; you have to ask “what?” a lot.  But once you learn how to speak a language, you learn how to hear others.  Rather than expect others to understand you, you take responsibility to understand them.  We benefit as a new world of knowledge and wisdom open up to learn from.

Once we can speak the language of others, we can hear them; once we can hear them we can learn from them.  The immigrants that come to this country make the US great.  They have sacrificed for the sake of their family’s interest, leaving behind the comfort of the familiar.  Some of them come as refugees, leaving behind horrible conditions, travelling an impossible path.  All of our citizens stand to learn from these people, from the wisdom they acquired from their difficult experiences.  They are resourceful and savvy, entrepreneurial and wise.  And they teach best in their own words, in their own language.

If we turn the focus off of how others can understand us and how we can understand them, we can learn.  If our people sacrifice resources so that we can learn languages, we will gain wisdom.  We learn how to speak another language, and we learn to hear a new way of life to add to our own experiences.  When our culture shifts to wanting to learn from everyone, we would put forth the necessary resources for learning languages.

Do you agree?  Would it improve our country if we put more resources into learning new languages, rather than expect everyone to learn English?

Language Deficiency

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“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.