WHY CAN’T THEY JUST SPEAK ENGLISH?

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of this state to secure the rights, constitutional or otherwise, of persons who, because of a non-English-speaking cultural background, are unable to readily understand or communicate in the English language, and who consequently cannot be fully protected in legal proceedings unless qualified interpreters are available to assist them.”

This statement is a direct quote from state law where I live.  A question that comes up at times from people who “don’t get out much” is why refugees don’t go back to their home countries, or learn English.  I would like to explore ways to respond.  I don’t expect anyone reading my blog to be asking them, but you may be called upon to answer them some time.  Answering them with some compassion for the ignorance of the questioner goes a lot further toward opening hearts than a slap or a scolding.  So what are some kinder, more effective responses?

Let us take a typical language service recipient now residing in a country with more stability or economic opportunities.   To find out where these refugees come from, one could draw a geopolitical map of war zones, social unrest, and economic devastation.  Throw in a few natural disasters, and you end up with a solid list of countries of origin for language service recipients in our courtrooms and hospitals.  But who cares about them, right?  They should just go home.  This is our place, and they have theirs.

When people share that sentiment with me, I invite them to try and put themselves for a moment in the refugee’s place, on a small scale:  Your house just burned down and is now a dangerous charred remnant of itself with bared electrical wires and leaking pipes.  These things sometimes happen.  No question that you would do your best to find somewhere else to sleep.  And of course it would add insult to injury if anyone suggested you just “go home”.   So I ask the “let’s deport them” crowd to educate themselves so they truly understand the state of that home (country) before they would condemn refugees to return to it.  One needs a viable home to return to.  That is only human.

The refugees we meet from across the globe for the most part would absolutely LOVE to have a viable home to go back to.  They would love to have their whole family intact, everyone alive and healthy.   They would love to have a safe and peaceful, economically stable place to live.  They prefer, as we all do, to live in a place with clean air, clean drinking water, and no border disputes.  They would love to do simple things we take for granted, like have their kids go to school.  Sleep in their own home without the risk of being bombed or having a child recruited for war.  These are things we all want, on the human level.  For some of us, fate has placed us where we can get all this.

Let’s move on the language.  Okay, they are here, but why can’t they just learn English?  Let’s take two typical workers.  One is a hotel maid.  She has a boss who speaks her native language.  She works alone and is actually not supposed to talk to the other maids.  She is also prohibited from chatting with hotel guests.  She is only allowed to give a quick greeting, such as good morning, or call out “housekeeping” as she enters a room.  Her job is harder than it was a decade ago because the hotels have increased the old 8 rooms per day to 13 or 14 rooms a day, so she runs all day.  She gets home tired and cooks for the family and no, she does not make it to community college for those English classes.

Meet her husband, a prep cook at a local restaurant.  His boss is a native speaker of his home language, and so are the other kitchen staff.  He does not serve or wait on any customers, so he does not practice English as work.  He takes second shifts whenever he can, so he does not make it to English classes either.  And these two workers had only a couple years each in elementary school.  Then it was time to work in the fields or in the home.  So if they somehow manage to sign up for English classes, they are not well equipped to study.  Even when their growing children try to teach them, it can be hard for them to learn more than very rudimentary phrases.  Or to learn to pronounce things well enough.  Let alone become fluent enough to understand doctors and lawyers.

It is hard for people who have not traveled to have a sense of what it is like to move about the world.  The world is so overwhelmingly huge, and we are so infinitesimally small.  If we have only traveled for fun, we may think of language learning as a joy rather than a daunting or impossible task.  Try to imagine that you HAD to relocate, though.  As hard as it is to wrap your mind around it, imagine your country at war and your children going hungry, and having to relocate by hiding in a ship’s hold to China (or another country) where you are going to work in a factory and send money home. Good luck teaching yourself Mandarin or another new language in your spare time.

I know, you don’t believe it can happen to you, or to us.  It is hard to imagine, right?  Many refugees did not expect to be in their situations either.  Yet it happens.  We don’t like to think about it, but our house can burn down.  Our economy can tank.  Our country can be at war on home soil.  If it does happen to me, I can only hope that I will have the opportunity to learn enough of the language to converse with people.  And if I am able to struggle forward into their language, amidst all my grief and loss and worry, I hope the locals don’t tell me hateful things – like wishing me back to a war zone.  I hope at least some of the locals will take the time to get to know me, and welcome me, for as long as I have to stay.  And so I try to do the same, while I am fortunate enough to offer a safe harbor instead of having to seek one.