There is a discourse going on in our country about immigrants, refugees, and non-native speakers. This discourse is heated and emotional but somehow incredibly detached from the individuals that are most affected.
My mom has been teaching ESL for over a decade in a city that, despite its desolate surroundings and relative isolation, is relatively diverse for Texas. She has taught English as a second language to native speakers of a dozen languages she does not know. (She doesn’t even know Spanish somehow.) What she does is an act of wit and witchcraft. And she’s damn good at her job.
Over the years, she taught me much of what I know about a population that is under attack more than ever. Her wisdom deserves more words, but most of the words on refugees and immigrants should be written and spoken by refugees and immigrants themselves. So here is a short list of things I think are worth noting.
- A person’s ability to speak a language does not correlate to their intelligence.
- Speaking very loud and very slow doesn’t usually help a person understand what you’re saying. This is especially relevant if you don’t have any intention of listening to their response.
- The circumstances of a person becoming a refugee are always out of their control.
- Many, many people who find themselves in this country did not choose to come to this country. (see #3) But many also know that part of assimilating in the United States means buying into American exceptionalism.
- School systems often only give a student a couple of years before they are tested on grade level and in English. There is not a translated test.
- Some people come to the states from refugee camps. Some students who are refugees have never been in a formal school setting. Some find the basics of a developed world terrifying. (One of my mom’s student’s was scared to tears at the flush of a toilet.)
- Some people come to the states from refugee camps. Some students who are refugees excelled in their school before circumstances out of their control took their school away. Some had lives that were way more comfortable than their life is in America.
- Sometimes people don’t want to learn English. This doesn’t mean that they can’t (see #1 and #4)
- Any official government process is incredibly difficult to navigate for a native speaker. (Think about all the things you had to read, gather, and do to get your driver’s license.) For non-native English speakers, this can be enough to go without things like government ID and aid. (Have you ever let your driver’s license expire because you didn’t want to bother with the DMV? I have. And I understand everything they’re saying.)
- The ability to speak a language shouldn’t determine your livelihood.