I just spent two days working with adult English Learners attending our district’s adult high school. I was administering a speaking test which is part of our annual English proficiency assessment. I always love my visits at the adult high school. I meet so many interesting people. They are all working hard to learn English, get an education, and help their families. Many of the students are young people, but there are always a few in their 50s or 60s. There are mothers and fathers. There are people who come to school in the morning and go to work in the afternoon. There are Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists (there was even a Buddhist monk yesterday!). They are from all kinds of countries – today I tested people from Burma, Malaysia, India, Egypt, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Venezeula, Sudan, and Mexico. It was amazing to hear some of their stories.
I want us to start listening to the stories.
Like when I was a little girl in the 1980s, my parents were involved in a program called Laubach Literacy, which was a reading program for illiterate adults. Each of my parents had one student that they tutored and taught to read English. My mother’s student was a Korean lady, whom she would meet at the public library. I’d run along in the stacks and find some books while my mom sat at a square table teaching the woman phonics. My dad’s student was a Vietnamese man, and he would come to our house once a week for his reading lesson. He always took his shoes off at the door. I remember that because it felt so foreign, and yet just a few years later, I’d be doing it with ease. Those were my first encounters with people from other countries.
Or when I moved to Bangkok in 1989. I still remember the first day at my new school. I scanned the crowd of students, looking for a white face. I didn’t find one. Instead, I saw Indians and Filipinos and Thais and Koreans. I saw turbans and hennaed hands and Buddha necklaces. One of the first people to be nice to be was named Dela. She had a wide smile, a air of mischief about her, thick dark hair, and was a Zoroastrian from India. She became one of my best friends.
Or when I joined my Thai youth group. I remember them having patience with my halting Thai. I remember them asking me to speak in front of everyone even though I spoke imperfectly and with an accent. I remember them loving me as if I was just like one of them.
Thailand taught me what it meant to love and be loved by people who are not like you. What it meant to belong even when you did things differently. That a person can be accepted even when she sticks out from the crowd. I owe a debt to those friends who cared for me. They made me feel like I was valuable even when I was not from their country, religion, or language.
I want to do that for the immigrants who have come here.
Can we work toward that together? Instead of seeing them as encroaching, can we see them as enriching? Can we look for beauty in diversity, in the different ways the tongue clicks out words, in the smells of exotic foods, in the smiles that light up faces of all shapes and colors? Maybe we can stop seeing how different we are and start seeing how similar we are. Immigrants are human beings, too. Like you and me, they want good jobs and a good education for their kids and a safe place to live. Just like you and me, they go to the grocery store and watch their kids play sports and take care of their grandchildren. They want to contribute to American society and economy, and many of them have adapted to “our” way of life and customs here.
Let’s turn “We speak English” into “We speak love.”
The language of love is spoken, you know. Everywhere.
It was spoken when my teacher friend asked for donations of gently used coats for her needy immigrant students, and through an anonymous monetary donation, she was able to get not only coats, but socks and undershirts for all of her students.
It is spoken when another teacher friend tutors her EL students after school for free.
It is spoken when yet another friend I know takes an EL family under her wing and helps them get the social services they need. She gets the kids Christmas gifts every year.
It was spoken when a private school gave Christmas gifts to every single student at a nearby low-income public school with a high percentage of immigrant families.
“We speak love” is happening because “We speak English” is honestly no longer true. America has no official language, and almost 400 languages are spoken within our borders. (This article will give you some facts about our multilingual, multicultural country.) Sure, English has become the language of choice, but NONE of us are required to speak English. And the truth is that most immigrants DO acquire some English. The children definitely do, because they go to school, and by law every school district must provide ESL services. I have attended many parent meetings when the parents say their kids only want to speak English at home. In fact, this study proves that second generation Latino immigrants learn English faster than 19th century German immigrants learned English.
(I could fill this blog post with reasons why first generation immigrants struggle to learn English, both from a social standpoint and from a second language acquisition standpoint. But I’ll leave that blog post for another day.)
I believe that if we look at the New Testament, we see Jesus speaking love to people unlike him, too. Jesus traveled through Samaritan towns and cities rather than crossing the Jordan River to avoid Samaritans. Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman at the well, in a time and place when Jews and Samaritans hated each other. He accepted the outcasts of society: the lepers, the tax collectors, the women, the demon-possessed. Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan also confirms that we should open our hearts to people unlike us.
People are pouring into the US because they’ve heard we’re a great country and they want a good future for their children. Why not open our arms to people who want to be with us? Why not demonstrate grace, mercy, and kindness to them? Why not listen to their stories, even stories spoken in halting English, and reach out to them with hearts of acceptance just as my Thai friends did for me long ago?
Forget English. We speak love.