Every once and awhile, the “Why Must I Press 1 for English” style memes cycle through my news feed. Someone is irritated by their experience calling a company for assistance and non-native
English speakers become a symbol for all that’s wrong in America.This is America. English is our national language. Why should’t every service be offered
The Press 1 for English Style Meme.
exclusively in English? If you want to be an American citizen, you should learn English first.
When I hear this prompt, I hear something different. For me, it represents living in a vast, diverse country that values multiculturalism. It takes a few extra seconds for me to listen to a prompt and “press 1” for English when making a phone call. It takes two years to develop basic conversational skills and five to seven years to be fully literate in another language.
A few years ago, immigrants to the area from different African countries began attending our church services. These new members came to the United States from war-torn countries and told chilling stories of persecution, isolation from their families, literally running for their lives, and near starvation. They came from different African nations and spoke a variety of languages, but the common thread of immigration drew them together.
We did what we could to accommodate their language needs; ordering church materials in different languages, interpreting in French where it would help, and working to learn words in their languages to welcome them. Our women’s organization invited these women to lead an activity where they shared food, traditions, and clothing styles from their native countries and their faces lit up with joy as they shared a bit of home.
These brave individuals faced many challenges before immigrating and were grateful for safety and opportunity. Daily activities we take for granted here – finding housing, setting up utilities, finding a bank account, seeking work, understanding labels in the grocery store – required extra energy and dedication. They were open to learning a new language, but needed kindness and assistance as they navigated a new culture.
Putting Myself In Someone Else’s Shoes
I try to imagine coming to a new country, excited by new potential, but fearful of the unknown. My reasons for coming could be so varied. I could be fleeing tyranny or oppression of some kind. Perhaps my native country is unsafe or in the midst of a civil war. Maybe I am seeking better medical care for my family. Perhaps I am a seasonal worker or have dreams of finding regular employment. I could be seeking a better life for my children, taking a chance in a new country to give them an improved education and increased opportunities that will not be hindered by their race, nationality, gender, or religion.
Some people don’t really see me. To them I am simply a symbol of accommodation, a threat to their way of life. My immigrant status – legal or illegal – hangs in the air between us. My presence symbolizes a threat to job security and an addition to an already overburdened welfare system. I might have an elementary school education or be a chemist, physician, farmer, or engineer in my native country. No matter my eloquence in my native language, I am only judged by my faltering English.
On the Fringes of Conversation
My own experience being a minority in a language situation is small, but the memory is powerful. Tim and I made friends with a couple from Argentina a few years back. My husband loved the opportunity to speak with them in Spanish. While both of our husbands were fluent in two languages, the wife and I were at a definite disadvantage. My understanding of Spanish was deemed stronger, so we’d sometimes get together and the conversation would begin to flow in a language I hadn’t studied or used since college.
Tim would sometimes translate for me, but it would hinder the flow of the conversation. Other times I would stop him and ask for a translation, feeling left out, and he’d apologize and summarize a bit. I didn’t want my friend to feel as though she was the outsider in every conversation, so I participated as best I could. By the end of these conversations, however, I felt exhausted and craved easy communication in English. I couldn’t begin to imagine navigating the complexities of communicating about my home, work, schooling, family or money in a second language.
Language Proficiency Takes Time
Learning a language takes time and, while language programs can help immigrants learn basic words to purchase food, ride the bus, or say “hello”, language in school, the workplace, or in conversations is still a challenge. Immigrants need places to practice English without feeling embarrassed, opportunities to gain literacy in their native language, and patience from their peers. When immigrants need to find information about finances, housing, insurance, or medical needs, they might not yet know the correct terminology in English and their comprehension might not be adequate for their needs. Even when they become proficient in English, I can understand how ESL learners might be comfortable discussing these sensitive topics in their native tongue.
According to Brookings, 13% of the US population is foreign born. Looking back at our family trees, the rest of us will find foreign-born ancestors, many who spoke little or no English when they arrived in the United States. I believe these immigrants, many who faced discrimination and struggled to assimilate, would have loved the opportunity to press a number for assistance in their native language.
What Our Reactions Say About Us
Historically, Americans have worried about the impact of immigration. Many of the arguments used against Latino and Asian immigrants today were used historically as German, Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, and Roman Catholic immigrants immigrated to the United States. I’m not denying that the
|These arguments are not new.|
issues related to immigration are complex, but I don’t buy the argument that language accommodation discourages learning the English language, threatens the American way of life, or takes away from the experience of natural-born citizens.
I liken the “I shouldn’t have to press 1 for English” argument to a conversation I find myself having with my children lately. One child will receive a complement or praise and the other will feel jealous or proclaim that we must not feel the same about them. My response: Something good for someone else – a complement, personal success, assistance, or recognition – doesn’t diminish you in any way. In fact, I’d argue that how we respond to something good for someone else, especially when we don’t notice a direct benefit, says a great deal about us.
Multiculturalism is American
Pressing 1 for English isn’t a sign to me that we are losing a common language, but instead that the United States is still a country that values diversity, embraces different cultures, and provides opportunity to people from diverse backgrounds. The fact that I have to press 1 means that we recognize the value in supporting people as they make the transition to learning English and we care more about people than small inconveniences or perceived superiority.
Resources for information on how Immigrants impact our culture and economy: Value Added from the Immigration Policy Center and Immigrants have Enriched American Culture and Enhanced Our Status in the World from The Cato Institute.