By Daniel Schnee on September 8, 2021.
It is a phrase beloved by bigots, tossed out against immigrants and recent arrivals to our great nation: “Learn to speak English!” I really loathe these words, as they suggest their recipient has not made any effort, just because they haven’t become totally fluent in the short time they have been here.
Certainly, if an immigrant is going to thrive in Canada, learning quality English is necessary. But those who say “Learn English!” lack a basic sense of compassion and understanding of the difficulty of the process and necessary time in which to do it, almost invariably having never lived in another country themselves. So in the interest of fair play, let’s turn this phrase around on another immigrantâ€¦ myself, when working abroad.
While living in Japan I decided it might be nice to move to a different neighbourhood. I knew my boss had some apartment rental magazines on his desk, so I confidently asked him in Japanese if I could borrow them. His face turned red and the surrounding staff started laughing. I had mixed up my nouns, and instead of rental guides inadvertently asked if I could borrow his pornography.
While doing research in Beijing, China I once hired a private car to take me to various temples more quickly. Since Beijing is huge, we were together for hours. I was eager to use my burgeoning Mandarin language skills, so I thanked him whenever I exited the car.
He looked confused, so I would just thank him again. At the end of the day I mentioned my driver’s reaction to the hotel desk clerk and she said, “You didn’t say, ‘thank you.’ Every time you got out of the car you said, ‘that was delicious!'”
The best example though is the day I won a bottle of Gatorade for successfully captaining my recreational volleyball team in Osaka, Japan. It was lemon-flavoured, and came with a nice note wrapped around it. I couldn’t completely read the lettering on the front, but it said “lemon,” and the liquid was neon yellow.
I chilled it for about an hour and during a coffee break decided it was time to have a nice refreshing drink. So I popped the top and in one big squirt got a refreshing mouthfulâ€¦ of lemon-scented dish soap.
A British colleague of mine laughed uproariously, suggesting my IQ was somewhere between that of a poodle and a bowl of soup. An hour later he drank apple-scented “Gatorade”.
“Learn to speak English” is actually just code for “not trying very hard,” in other words, “lazy immigrant.”
Considering how difficult it is to switch from languages like Tagalog or Vietnamese to English, this kind of bigotry must end. Besides, most of these people who should “learn to speak English” already speak two or more languages other than English itself. They are blowing past us in socio-economic advantage if we just sit there nitpicking their grammar.
While I was drinking Japanese dish soap, and describing Chinese car rides as delicious, these folks were building successful lives in multiple languages. Think the locals should “learn to speak English”? Maybe you and I should learn to speak Filipino first.
Dr. Daniel Schnee is an anthropologist who speaks eight languages.