Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Learning from non-native English speakers

When we come into contact with a person who has difficulty expressing himself or herself in English, rather than jump to conclusions about the person's preferences, intellect, or educational background, we ought to ask ourselves how we would fare if we were forced to communicate in their native language. We can replace our prejudicial assumptions with a presumption that the other person is just as complex and interesting a person as we are.

Our default stance toward “linguistic others” is one of dismissal: we assume that we cannot communicate with them, we suspect that even if we could communicate, the other person might not have anything valuable to say, and in short we try to end the exchange as quickly as possible. But instead we could choose to adopt a basic posture of respect; we could try to move beyond thought-shortcuts and see the other person in the fullness of his or her individuality and humanity. (One good way to do this is to recognize that the place and circumstances of our birth as well as our language, heritage, and family, is nothing more than an accident – I could have just as easily been born in the mountains of Central Asia instead of Michigan).

We might communicate our respect with a smile and a few words, or by taking the opportunity to learn a bit of their language and something about the place they are from. We might also talk with them in English, but in a patient manner in which we are willing to slow down our own speech and hear the other person out even if they do not navigate the difficulties of the English language as quickly or as fluently as we do. Our own ability in English is no more than an accident.