Learn to Speak the Language


When I was in middle school my mom and I went to a mall in Washington, D.C. for a weekend of shopping for school clothes and supplies. In one store we found ourselves in a checkout line behind a few women from another country, speaking a language other than English and having a bit of trouble. Eventually their issue was resolved and my mom and I made our purchases peacefully. I distinctly remember uttering words that I still cringe to admit that I said: “If they come here to live, they should learn to speak the language.”

Fast-forward to my college years. I majored in International Studies and Modern Foreign Languages. I spent a semester in France and a month in Germany studying French and German respectively. In those six months abroad, I came to understand with perfect clarity just how ignorant that statement is. I was the person not speaking the language. I understood what it meant to want to talk to a friend in English because it was comfortable and comforting. I was the person daily frustrated by basic conversations. In fact, on my return trip to France from Germany for an overnight before flying back to the U.S., I celebrated a full conversation I had IN FRENCH buying a train ticket of all things. Learning languages is not my specialty. I am horrible with them. The only language I ever enjoyed studying was American Sign Language. I learned French and German mostly so I could travel to Europe and not make a huge fool of myself – fail. It was hard. Really, really hard. My host family’s two-year-old got a kick out of schooling me in basic vocabulary words. (Though he adamantly refused to believe that “cat” is a word – so, one point for me.)

I was trying to learn the languages, but taking a couple classes and immersing myself for a few months in a new environment did not make me fluent.

It’s not just language that has the potential to trigger misunderstandings between people of different countries; culture is as much if not more of a contributor. I have had the benefit, thanks to several very special friends and my trip abroad, to glimpse this from both directions. There are tiny details that frustrate the most basic of tasks: I had to bag my own groceries in France and in Germany I had to put a coin in a slot to get a grocery cart – neither of which I had had to do in my suburban dwelling in the U.S. There are food differences. My college friend from Armenia introduced me to the pomegranate (and I smile and think of her every time I have one) and also a cows feet soup (I should’ve known not to eat it when her sister came in and scrunched up her face). There are larger mindsets and habits that are more revealing of priorities and perspective: the same friend from Armenia looked at the toilet paper dresses we made for my wedding shower and quietly noted how much we had wasted. A woman from Colombia in my graduate school program remarked on my quick inclination to trust the police during an intervention role-play – “That would not be reassuring to me if I was a part of such an intervention and that was the response to a threat.” My friend from Malaysia did a stand-up job hosting a baby shower for me, but admitted that the whole concept of celebrating a small child before he or she was born seemed to be a western concept – it was more comfortable for her to have visitors and celebration after her little one arrived.  And on and on the list goes.

The problem isn’t solely that people make ignorant statements, it’s that people stick with these statements for years and years and decades and decades and lifetimes without ever challenging them. If you have a negative opinion about someone or a people group or a country or a religion, and you hold that view without ever testing it for accuracy or attempting to see how it may evolve in your lifetime, that’s the problem. Likewise for attributing purely positive characteristics on one group or country without leaving room for diversity and humanity within a generalized population.

If you’re up for stretching your brain on this subject instead of leaving tasteless comments on Coca-Cola commercials and Miss America pageant results, but traveling or making friends is too large of a leap for you, may I suggest a couple reads: to show this is not a new problem, Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Displaced Person;” for understanding just how much some people are willing to go through to get to this country (and how much we take for granted) read Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey; for perspective on the jarring realities that refugees face upon arrival in the U.S., read Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Everywhere.

You don’t have to agree with the books or the author’s perspectives. You don’t even need to change your own. But, at the very least, challenge them.

2 Responses to “Learn to Speak the Language”

  1. t upchurch

    I’m reading Flannery O’Connor now, it’s taking ages as I struggle to concentrate on reading her stories through rather than wrestling with ‘what I think about that’ every few paragraphs.

    • RebeccaV

      I’m reading through O’Connor’s short stories. She certainly has a distinct voice and style. I’ve enjoyed reading one and then having a few days to reflect on it as a whole – that seems to be the best I can do juggling two little ones but it works for now. I’d love to hear how you approached her work and what you’ve made of it. Good luck!


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