Teaching Life -

THEY don't speak English

During the polar vortex of the Midwest, I was at the doctor's office and per my usual talkative self, I shared with the nurse that I was an English as a Second Language Teacher.  The person's response was disappointing and sadly typical.

 At first, the nurse stated that I should be teaching the adults instead of the kids because "they are the ones who need it."  Yup, that's when the "they talk" began. Next, she told me about an Italian woman she knows who has lived in [INSERT Name of a small town in Northern Illinois] the United States for 50 years, and "STILL DOESN'T SPEAK ENGLISH!  How can that happen?!"

The naive teacher I am, I thought this would be a good teachable moment.  So I responded to her comment with, "Well, some people work in their homes and prefer to stay close to their communities.  And producing language is much more difficult than understanding it."

Then I was hit with, "You teachers have an excuse for everything."  And she walked away as I sat in awe of her ignorant and hurtful words.

Now, this is where my thoughts, writing, and post is going to get messy. I am an emotional person and situations like this make my emotions fly and my ability to articulate them often goes out the window....but here we go, I'm going to give it my best, because as my parents have exemplified for me and as the Dali Lama reminded me in his tweet (which I, ironically, read immediately following this conversation because my Twitter feed is full of like-minded people who don't say crappy things like she did), "We can only transform humanity and create a happier more compassionate world through education."

If I could re-live that moment after her statement, is there something I could have said that would change her ignorance?   I don't know.  What I do know is this.... I feel hopeful that, "that immigrant" has maintained her language despite the U.S. culture's mono-linguistic perspective.  I am a lover of language because it has made my life richer.   (For example, the word "huevon" in Chilean Spanish maybe the most incredible word because it is so versatile.  It can be conjugated to mean dude, thing, messing around, to name a few.  Oh, but that is the PG translation, do not use it in your Spanish class. :) 

If you are more of a science person and like "hard facts" the brain research overwhelmingly supports multilingualism.  (Here is one link regarding the increase of “mental flexibility”.) I also know that speaking a language other than the one you were born hearing is really, really challenging.  

I wasn't making up excuses for speaking another language - production of speech requires:

1) You can physically make the sounds with your mouth;

2) You know the words (vocabulary) to produce;

3) You can organize the words in a meaningful way;

4) You have a reason or purpose compelling you to speak.  

Most people see me as a "fluent" Spanish speaker.  That is because "most people" don't speak Spanish, so honestly, they don't know any better.  Now if you are a bilingual colleague/friend of mine or a Chilean family member, you know better.  You know that I constantly confuse feminine and masculine and I love the word "huevon" so much because I can use it to substitute for ANY vocabulary word I don't know and there are quite a few!

Another reason I'm considered "fluent" is because I'm white.  So people's prejudices against Spanish speakers don't apply to me, which leads to how "racism" comes into play.  This is when the "those people" terms get thrown around.  Being a white Spanish speaker also makes people feel comfortable enough to say extremely prejudice, racist things to me. I'd like to use my position of privilege and my voice to "transform humanity and create a happier more compassionate world."

So now, I look to you, to help me come up with something better to say to people who say these racist things to me...So far I've only come up with, "Why would anyone want to learn English, if it means talking to a mean judgmental person like you?" However, I would like to be an example of good and not perpetuate the negative...so what would you say?


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