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Friday, June 1, 2012

Press 1 for English

A long time ago, way back when... I used to say, hey, you're in the US, you should speak English. Or, why do I have to press 1 for English? That should be default!

Then a few things happened.

It's called life experience.

First, I spent a summer or two in Germany with my folks when they were stationed there during my college years. I had had German as my foreign language for two years in high school, and took a base sponsored refresher course...but I still managed to fumble with speaking and understanding the local language. Once I asked for the newspaper instead of the check at a very nice restaurant...that was embarrassing but easily cleared up at least. There are other times I remember less well, where I had to sort through my limited vocabulary to try to express simple things. I remember clearly thinking how hard it would be to live day to day in a place you couldn't communicate.

Another life experience was getting to know my sister-in-law. She met my older brother while he was in Germany on an extended visit with my folks, and the story goes their first date had each holding a translation book because while both spoke multiple languages, neither was fluent in a common language.

I know some of that story is exaggerated, because my SIL could speak and understand English. But she wasn't the kind of fluent it takes to be confident. She still has an accent, and hoooboy watch out if she gets riled! I love my SIL. I even love hearing other people with similar accents because they remind me of her. I would bet, if there was a "press 4 for Hungarian" option on phone calls where things could get complicated or detailed, I'd bet she'd go for her first language every time. Where I am going with this is, I saw how hard it was to "get" simple things native language speakers take for granted- puns, idioms, jokes...regional dialects... It frankly takes a lot of work and in the mean time people still need to interact with the world.

Y'all, it is not easy for most people to learn a new language as adults, even putting much effort into it.

Finally, I moved to a major city. It is no surprise that NYC has many languages being spoken. Sometimes people are new immigrants. Other times people are the first generation born in the US and their parents speak/spoke only their native language.

Engaging with others in a new language for every little thing...it has to be hard. I think it's great that communities form around common languages, so that at the end of the day everyone can get their needs met without trying to remember subject verb word order, stumbling over pronunciation, or getting met with blank stares of "I have no clue what you're asking for" when all you want to know is when to pick up your work uniform from the dry cleaners.

Think about this. If you need a doctor, and have a very basic grasp of English, would you be able to communicate symptoms and such? My OB/GYN has press 1 for English because most of the patients speak what sounds and looks on signs like Russian. I cannot imagine needing to see an OB/GYN and not being able to communicate concerns or fears or medical history.

What I am saying here is, I moved away from the idea that living- which includes working- in this country requires a level of fluency equal to a native English speaker. Now when I see people with Facebook quotes amounting to "I speak English and so should you" I can only shake my head. This country is quite proud of its history of immigrants- very few can say they didn't have another language being spoken in their family tree.

It may be frustrating for you to interact for that brief moment with someone whose English is faltering. Just take a moment to think how they feel.

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