Thursday, October 09, 2008

Learn to speak English, why doncha?

As evidenced by my blogroll, I love to read about other people's ex-pat experiences. I have a lot of ex-pat Brits listed here, but that's mostly only because I followed links from one to the next, to the next . . . However, most of the ex-pats I encounter in my 'real' life are not Brits. In fact, most of them do not speak English as their first language. Some speak almost no English at all. I remember being in that situation when I was in Asia - the foreigner who doesn't speak the language. The grownup who is treated as a child. The college-educated adult who is treated like an idiot. It's frustrating, and it's not a situation you can remedy quickly. It takes time (and a lot of effort) to learn a language, and some languages are harder to learn than others. Even when I lived in France and spoke the language well, I was always an outsider.

When I think of what new immigrants with children have to deal with in terms of language - specifically communications from their kids' schools - it makes me really angry when I hear people complaining "Why don't they learn English?" "Why should we have to provide interpreters and translations?" "They should just go home if they don't want to learn English!" These are all legal immigrants, and the United States government did not require a language test of them. They are hard-working members of society and the reality is that many of the parents are so busy working in menial jobs that people born here won't do that they have no time now to take English classes.

I met a teacher last year who has been in the US as long as I have - over 20 years. Originally from Germany, her English is excellent. (In fact, she teaches English to new immigrants.) Yet even she - a fluent English speaker, familiar with the public school system - said she felt discombobulated trying to navigate the system trying to get support for her special needs child. The people who are complaining that parents in our school system should make more effort to learn English clearly have no experience themselves of having to navigate real daily life (not just tourist life) in a second language and culture. I'd love to drop some of those complainers off somewhere like China or Russia for a year and see how they fare! Sadly, the experience would probably do nothing for them except to 'prove' to their blinkered satisfaction that the United States is the best place in the world to live.


Stinking Billy said...

Having a reasonable flair for accents and dialects, I used to think I would be able to pick up a foreign language without too much trouble. Until I attended Spanish classes (in anticpation of future holidays), that is. I tried my Spanish out on our next holiday but, man, they weren't speaking it properly in the Costa Del Sol? I think it takes time and you need to live there, among them (whoever they are), just to occasionally pass the time of day with the locals.

ADDY said...

I don't think I could live in a country, if I couldn't speak the language. I would make a point of learning it first before I emigrated. Even when I go on a short holiday - to wherever it is - I make a point of learning as much as I can, so I can say please, thank you and count up to 100.

Iota said...

When you are finding your way through an unfamiliar system of bureaucracy (like your friend with her child), there is quite often a whole new language to learn, even if you are speaking in your mother tongue. It must be a nightmare if you are already operating in a foreign language.

Unknown said...

As a young adult, I never understood the problems of immigrants until I became one myself. I managed to learn some French in the first few years, but never have been able to master Arabic. Now I know what it feels like to be illiterate.

Expat Abroad

Mama Ava said...

Just found your blog. We lived in Tanzania for 3 years where our work required us to speak the langauge which was pretty easy to learn.

Now we live in Beijing and our work is all in English and we spent our first year knowing NO Chinese. It is a huge hindrance. You do learn a lot about a culture by the way langauge is structured; however, as expats who have a lot of the beauracratic crap done for us, I have developed a whoe new set of skills that I see alot of people using--those who transfer every 2 years who have to know how to move in, set up, and get started living quickly, but who won't be here long enough to learn much of the language.

But being very fluent conversationally is not the same as being proficient in technical areas. Certainly navigating any sort of governmental red tape would be beyond that conversational level.

As an American I think people should be required to demonstrate a level of proficiency after a certain # of years in the US. You are more self-sufficient, more productive, and more involved if you speak the langauge of your host country. For highly educated immigrants, learning English comes faster than for those who have had little or nor education in their home countries. I think after 5 years or so, though, a certain level of proficiency should be expected.

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