Saturday, October 6, 2012

Language Barriers

It was made to point at everyone who needs to learn English, dammit!

This isn't a revelation, but I don't speak Albanian. Since I've been here I have learned the following:

Please, thank you, good morning, good day, good bye, yes, no, numbers (for counting and money), I'd like____, Can I have_________. I have also learned the Albanian alphabet and how to read Albanian.

And that's it. The extent of my Albanian language ability is contained in two lines of a blog post. I have accepted work in, and moved to, a foreign country where I do not know the language. I am trying, I am, but between work and my daily life and cleaning my house or going out with friends or running errands I'm not dedicating hours a day to the endeavor. I find the Albanian language fascinating and difficult, and I want to learn more of it. For now, I'm just grateful that so many Albanians speak enough English for me to get by. Related to that, I'm grateful for the kindness and patience I have been shown as a foreigner who speaks little to no Albanian.

I think of the vitriol with which the subject is sometimes approached in America. A lot of people have a lot of strong opinions on how "they" should learn English if they're coming to our country. Apparently, pressing 1 for English is an arduous task that is too much to ask, and signs in languages other than English are offensive. I shudder to think how people would react if they knew that my local grocer kindly typed out my total in his calculator so that I could see it, since I had not yet learned the numbers- that's far more work than simply pressing 1. They might be stunned at the effort expended by my neighbors who, seeing I didn't speak Albanian, asked me if I spoke English. When I said yes, one ran- yes, ran- off to find someone who did, who could help me. He came back and translated for me, with a smile on his face. I said thank you in Albanian, and he said you're welcome in English. The man in the first floor of our apartment building sells fruit and veggies, as well as other random household items. One Saturday, as I was getting my fruits and veggies from him, his young son was there, watching. The man handed me bags as I pointed, smiled, and said thank you. He tallied it all up and wrote it down with a smile. He bagged it all up for me. I gave him my money and told him goodbye in his language. His son saw his father being helpful and kind to someone who was different from him- someone who didn't even speak the same language. When I am reduced to pointing and smiling, I feel like a child. But so far I have never been made to feel ashamed, and I am incredibly grateful.

I know I am more trouble than someone who speaks Albanian. I know that it is more work to help me. I sometimes feel embarrassed that I don't know more. I am trying to learn more. These barriers are not always easy.

I teach children who do not speak English. I found a child sobbing in the halls, inconsolable. I asked the other children "Please, ask him what is wrong!" They spoke English, and each one also spoke a first language- Turkish, Albanian, Italian- but none of us spoke his language. He was from Montenegro. I rubbed his back and the Albanian cleaning lady wiped his tears, but we couldn't say anything else. It's a terribly frustrating thing to be separated by a language barrier like that. But we can react to it by ignoring it, because it's too hard, or we can react to it with anger because it's annoying, or we can react to it by just being as nice as we can despite the fact that we can't really talk at all with one another.

Sometimes when Scott, Tiara, Bobby, and I are out talking and laughing in English I think I have a bit of an understanding of the experience of the Chinese women in my old neighborhood who knew very little English. They would sit and visit and eat together, comfortable speaking their language with one another and feeling connected in an English speaking world where they were, by and large, isolated. Of course the difference is that many people here do speak English, and I am, by dumb luck, a person who grew up speaking a language that is a very common and sought after second language. Scott's couch surfer, Julius, commented that it must be nice to be able to go virtually anywhere in the world and hear one's native language. It's a convenience that far too many English speakers take for granted. I teach at an international school filled with tens of languages, yet everyone is being educated in English, and seeking to learn English. That is a huge expanse of unearned privilege that I have just by virtue of being born in an English speaking country. Of course, let's not forget, it wasn't always an English speaking country. I mean, if we really want to get back to our roots, all of us Americans need to get on it with learning a couple hundred Native American languages.

Growing up in Texas, I have seen firsthand how cruel the conversation around immigrants and English can be. All I can say is that I am grateful that I, as a foreign worker in Albania, am not treated the same way foreign workers and/or non-English speakers are treated by some in America. I cannot imagine how much harder my life would be if I were treated with derision and handled rudely, if I were to be scoffed at or ignored, or if I would be not so gently "encouraged" to learn the language or get out. I know this is a complex topic and that it is wrapped up in many different issues. Once you're actually experiencing it, though, once you're on the other side of it and you are the foreigner benefiting from the kindness of strangers, it is hard to maintain a hardline stance. I wish more people could have this experience so that they could have some compassion and understanding. I was already firmly in the camp of "diversity is great!", and I roll my eyes hard at cartoons like the one above, but I am even more firmly so after being reminded again just what it is like to be a foreigner.


  1. This explains everything that I think on the subject perfectly. As always, you are much better at succinctly stating what I am feeling.