Some personal thoughts on immigration and language learning…

This is an issue I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Immigration and language learning are important to me for a variety of reasons, not in the least because I am currently an immigrant with some serious language barriers in my new country.

I have been living in Turkey for nearly a year and really have only picked up a smattering of words and phrases. I can barely communicate with Turks who don’t speak English. There are a surprising number of Turks who at least speak some basic English, and they all seem to be very accommodating and will try their best to understand me and be understood by me. Sometimes a person in a shop or the butcher’s or wherever, will actually try to teach me a word or two when they realize I am a complete linguistic invalid! Thank you all you kind and helpful Turkish people!

My current personal language learning experience (or lack thereof) has certainly highlighted for me some problems in thinking when it comes to immigrants in the US and language acclimatization.

First of all, the main problems when it comes to learning a new language, are money and time. Language classes are generally expensive and, if you want to actually USE the language, rather demanding of your time and energy. During this first year in Turkey there were months when we were just making ends meet. It was a stressful experience trying to earn enough to pay the bills and survive until the next paycheck. We had more free time then, but we certainly couldn’t afford to sign up for language classes. We made feeble attempts to teach ourselves with the help of a book, but that’s really hard, and for us it was a dismal failure.

Now, we have more money because we have more work, but we are lacking time. Our schedules change frequently, so signing up for a conventional language class would be completely impractical for us. Hiring a private teacher is still too expensive. We are trying to organize a ‘private’ class with a number of English-teaching friends in the same dire linguistic straits, but with people going on their summer holidays and ever-changing schedules, it’s tough. I hope it will soon get sorted out.

Another difficulty arises when the people you live and work with speak the same language as you, or the language you operate in at work is not the language you’re trying to learn, so large portions of your time are spent NOT learning and practising your new language. It is conceivable that Richie and I could speak Turkish to each other to practice more, but it is impractical and inefficient. We want to talk to each other and our friends to express ourselves and it will be a long time indeed before that can be accomplished to any degree in Turkish.

Then there are other personal and cultural issues that are involved in language learning. In general, it’s risky to try and communicate in a new language, because people don’t like to look or feel stupid. There is fear of making mistakes and just the sheer monumental task of putting a simple sentence together in a shop can make your braincells stop working, your palms get sweaty and your heart threaten to jump right out of your chest, as you stutter and mumble about the loaf of bread you want. It sounds funny, but YOU try it! I’m serious! It’s terrifying! Much sympathy to all my poor English students!

There are also identity issues involved; cultural and personal. Richie and I are essentially economic migrants here in Turkey, i.e. our main reason for being here is the necessity of having jobs and gaining work experience that would be difficult for us to currently get in our home countries, for various reasons. We did deliberately choose Turkey and we have an interest in this country’s culture, which makes things easier for us. However, there are still times when I just want my old life back! I want to be surrounded by the cultures, customs, people, language, etc, of home. It is difficult to be a ‘foreigner’ and it can be painful and difficult to change elements of your lifestyle and culture to fit into another country’s way of life. It makes you question who you are, your place in the world, your relationship to your home culture and even to other people in your life. It’s complicated, to say the least. I have a big interest in different cultures and I enjoy the process of changing and becoming more open-minded and learning more about the world, but that’s not to say it isn’t sometimes painful and emotionally trying. Learning to express yourself in another language, or being expected to give up your native language, can challenge or threaten your sense of identity. Just because you live in another country doesn’t mean you want to abandon your own culture and way of life.

So, what the heck is this all about? Basically I’ve been thinking about how my personal experiences here in Turkey help me better understand SOME of the issues immigrants face, especially when it comes to language learning.

For example, in the US, there is a lot of rhetoric about how immigrants should learn English, should be more ‘American’, how English should be the official language of the US, how there shouldn’t be bilingual education, how immigrants just want to enjoy all the rights and privileges of being in America but don’t want to culturally and linguistically assimilate.

Frankly, this kind of rhetoric annoys me because 1) it places all the blame and responsibility on immigrants and 2) it lacks any practical ideas about how to help immigrants learn English and become more successfully integrated into American society while still feeling that their various cultural identities are respected.

Basically, what I’m saying is that just because you make a law that says English is the official language of the US (which I think is nonsense) or tell immigrants ‘learn English’, you won’t suddenly make the problem go away. How and where and with what money are immigrants supposed to take English language classes? How are working families, trying to make ends meet, trying to feed and cloth and house themselves and their children (this includes poor, working class and middle class families), supposed to fork out the cash to pay for English lessons, provided there is even a facility available for such lessons?

I think one important step is for people to stop the ‘blame the victim’ game. Maybe in a perfect world, everyone would pick up a new language and become a fluent speaker and writer at the drop of a hat, just by talking in English to a cashier in a shop, watching TV in English or reading the daily newspaper. However, it’s not that simple! Most of us in the world aren’t language-learning prodigies! If people want everyone in America to be able to successfully use English as the language of the public sphere, EVERYONE must be willing to do what is necessary to make that a reality. That means English classes that are accessible and affordable to everyone who needs them (most likely paid for with tax money), some form of bilingual education in public schools, and an end to the stigmatization of the use of other languages in the US or of children who are bi- or multi-lingual (children who are non-native English speakers but are in the process of learning English are frequently labelled as ‘learning disabled’ because they can’t successfully do all their school tasks in English yet. Must be really encouraging *note the sarcasm*).

I’m certainly not claiming to have all the answers when it comes to policy options or how to make this all a reality. I just think that if more people had the experience of trying to make it in another country, and learning to operate in another language, it might change people’s perspective on how to deal with these issues in the US. I just hope people will give up all the moralizing and rhetoric in favour of doing something practical and realistic that will actually help solve these problems.

Okay, there are my thoughts on the issues. Any thoughts about practical things that can be done to make English learning facilities more available to immigrants? How can communities where English learning is an issue become more inclusive by tackling the situation in a realistic way? For anyone who actually has experience with these issues, I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment!


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