I’m a white anglo-saxon male who lives in North America. I speak English. I don’t speak any other language because I have never had an easy time trying to learn the “conversational” versions of other languages and I never plan to move to a country where English is not the primary language spoken.
I realize that, to many people, this makes me an uncultured oaf. After all, so many other people from other countries take the time and effort to learn my language, so why wouldn’t I care to do the same?
The answer is that, if they’re learning my language, good for them, and it probably means they plan on living in a place where the primary spoken language is English. If I was going to move to a place where the primary language was Spanish, I’d start, today, learning to speak Spanish. Same with French, Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese, you name it. I will not move to a non-English speaking country with intent to live there long-term unless I know how to speak their language before I get there.
Also, contrary to popular belief, no, there aren’t tons of people learning to speak English so that they can live and work in North America. Oh, they still plan to live and work in North America, but they have no intention of really learning English in order to do so.
I first noticed this phenomenon in my late teens, which is when I learned that the city I lived in had large sections that pretty much exclusively were for people of Indian descent to live in. I drove through these sections several times. The signs on the businesses in these areas were in Punjabi or Bengali, or one of the other Indian languages. The street signs were even in these languages. No English was seen anywhere. Everyone I saw walking on the streets was of obvious East Indian descent. I later lived close to a medicine shop that, because it was so close, was the one I went to when I needed meds. The problem was that it was owned and operated by East Indians, and the shop was set up to cater more or less exclusively to them. Whenever I walked in, I got strange looks. They couldn’t exactly refuse me service, but you could sure tell they wanted to. They would speak only in their language to other clientele. Much of the wall was covered in signs, charts or posters that were exclusively in their language. They very obviously only wanted to maintain clientele that was their own nationality and spoke their own language.
It was essentially the opposite of “Chinatown”, you know, that section in almost any large city that is primarily Chinese restaurants, Chinese clothiers, etc. Business owners in any Chinatown I’ve been in didn’t look at me strange or wonder why I was there. Chinatowns are about sharing the Chinese culture with other cultures. This is not the case with these urban areas that were all but cordoned off so that only East Indians could live there.
I’m not singling out East Indians, though. Presently, I work in a job that has me speaking to clientele over the phone, all of which live within the same locality that I do. And before you ask, no, this job does not require anyone to be bilingual. All my clientele work in a local industry, and nothing about this industry requires them to be bilingual. And yet, when I talk to a client, there’s a fifty/fifty chance that I won’t understand much of what they say, and that they will have similar problems understanding me.
They live in a primarily English-speaking area. They work in an English-speaking business. They deal primarily with people who speak English. And they have about as much familiarity with the English language as I do with a White Dwarf star. Which is to say, I’m aware that such a thing exists.
I recently spoke with a woman whose job it is to help people look for work. Many of the people she helps are immigrants. She has a colleague who is visually from the middle east but speaks English like she was born here. I know her because she helped me find the job that I’m in. The woman I was speaking to tells me that when immigrants who are looking for work see her, they immediately announce that they what her to be the one that they deal with. Sometimes they actually are assigned to her, and when they are, they each and every one tries speaking to her in their own language. She has to tell them, “No. You live in an English-speaking country now. You are looking for work primarily in English-speaking places of employment. You will speak English.” She reports that many do so only very reluctantly, and some pretty much ignore her after that.
Apparently it is becoming very, very common. People from other nations really want to move to North America to live, work, and be a part of this country. But they don’t want to be a part of this country. They want to turn this country, or at the very least, the area they live in, into another version of the country they left. They only want to associate with and/or become romantically involved with, each other. They only want to speak their language. They set up businesses of their own that cater only to each other. And they get really angry when we expect them to assimilate.
Apparently it’s “racism” now to expect that if they’re going to move here, they at least gain one ability, just one, that will enable them to live here and get along; that they learn to speak the local language. Understand, I am not speaking of people who still speak with an accent. I am speaking about people who mangle the English language so badly that I wouldn’t be surprised if their only attempt to learn it, ever, was skimming a few phrases out of an English phrase-book. If they even went that far. But when I complain about it, I’m the racist one.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that a good quarter plus of my clients are completely unintelligible. We have a forty-minute conversation that should take five minutes because I have to ask them to repeat everything they say, and they in turn ask me to repeat everything I say. In other jobs I’ve had, it went even further. They asked me if I speak their language, and grew annoyed when I said that I don’t. Yeah. They move to a country that doesn’t speak their language, and then get mad that we don’t.
I’ll admit, when I complain about this, I feel a little racist. This is mostly because I’ve been told I should. I’ve been told that, thanks to being white, nothing I say on the subject of race should be listened to, or heeded. Instead, I should feel only shame; shame at how my race has treated the other races of the world, and I should use this shame to understand that I can never, ever expect people of other nationalities to show me or mine the sort of respect that is demanded by them of me. And because this has been ingrained in me, I admit that when I talk about how frustrating it is that others of different nationalities have little to no respect for the language of the country they live in, I feel racist.
But I shouldn’t. I don’t care if I’m white, purple or green. It’s not about race. It’s about respect. Another rule I was raised on was “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule, this is called. I’ll treat you with respect, and in return I expect that you will do likewise. Apparently, however, this rule is expected to be completely negated if you’re a person of a different skin tone than white, and you’re dealing with a white person. In any such encounter, the expectations are on them, not you. They must walk on egg shells in your presence and do nothing that even slightly offends your sensibilities. You can be rude, disrespectful, call them all sorts of names, refuse to speak their language and even get offended that they don’t speak yours, you can forbid your children to marry outside their race and/or culture, you can expect, even demand, that the culture around you will bend themselves all out of shape in order to “respect” your culture, which, to you, means adopting it, you can even declare that your culture will one day be the dominant one around the world and live as though that’s already happened. And that’s okay, because you’re not white.
Now, some advocates for people like this suggest that the reason this isn’t a racist attitude is that many of these people came here as refugees. Therefore, how on Earth would they have had time to learn the language, not to mention that since they came here to escape something, and not because they were eager to live here, then why should I expect that they’ll respect my culture?
Well, I have several responses to that. First of all, if you’re a refugee, then obviously things weren’t great in your home country. So why would you flee from it and then try to turn my country into a reflection of the country you’re fleeing from? Second, respect is respect. The country you’re fleeing to doesn’t have to take you in. Is it too much to ask that you show a little courtesy? Third, there are ESL programs everywhere you look. Heck, one of them operates out of my church. There are people who make careers out of teaching English as a Second Language, and before you ask, no, these programs don’t cost anything. There are also social programs that exist to help immigrants receive housing and food while looking for work. There is literally no reason to be in North America and not know how to speak English.
And that brings me back to the people that I primarily interact with. I don’t know the story behind most of them, but I’m reasonably sure that at least 90% of them are not refugees. And most of them, I’m fairly certain, believe that they speak English as well as they are required to. I’m confident that they do not speak English at home, or indeed any time they speak to someone who speaks their language. I know this because I hear it.
Whenever I see two people from the middle east conversing, I don’t even have to get within earshot to know that they are speaking their own language to each other. I also know that in many cases they do this specifically so that people who don’t speak it don’t know what they’re saying. I knew a security guard who took night classes learning how to speak Punjabi, because at the mall where he worked, there were quite a few Punjabi people and he wanted to be able to speak to any of them, even if they didn’t speak English, and many didn’t. He told me that he frequently overheard them saying unconscionably racist things against white people (especially white women), and quite loudly, assuming that he couldn’t understand them. At the time, I also worked with a Punjabi-speaking East Indian man, one who spoke English well and understood that he was the one who needed to acclimate to the culture around him, and he repeatedly told me that East Indians would try to swindle me if I let them because I was white, and in their culture, not only was respect for white people not expected, they expected practically the opposite.
For that matter, I have sat at my job and listened to groups of two or three people sit and talk audibly in their own language. This fosters something of a poisoned work environment, particularly when the odd English name can be heard. Just who in the workplace are they discussing, and is it positive or negative? If it’s positive, why wouldn’t they speak so that they can be understood by all?
So, just to break this down, because I’m white and live in North America, I’m expected to respect all other cultures, even those who don’t respect mine. This is fine, as long as you don’t expect me to tolerate disrespect on a person-to-person basis, but I am expected to tolerate it! Worse, even calling it disrespect gets charges of racism leveled at me, and heck, I even feel a little racist just talking about it.
It’s not peoples’ race I have a problem with. I work with, and go to church with, and am friends with, people of a wide variety of races. It’s not peoples’ culture I have a problem with. It’s not peoples’ language I have a problem with. It’s not even their accent. It’s the lack of respect, in fact the expectation that they will not need to show any respect to me, all while more or less demanding I show it to them.What happened to affording people the same respect you wish from them? Is it really a “racist” thing to expect? So, here’s what I’d like to get across; by all means, come here. Get jobs here. Interact with us. Even keep to your culture, as long as you understand that you don’t live in your culture anymore, and you should not expect that those around you will conform to it merely because it offends you when they don’t. Speak your own language to each other, but keep in mind that it can be taken as a sign of disrespect when you do so where you can be overheard, and if you do decide to use this in order to denigrate those around you, just remember that some of them might actually be able to understand you. While you are at your job, for example, speak English at all times. And by all that’s Holy, learn to speak English to the degree that the average English speaker can understand you.
And again, it’s not that we don’t like your language, or that we don’t want you here.
It’s all about respect. Want to get it? Give it.