Opinion: Spielberg’s West Side Story shows us the value of multilingualism
Please forgive my occasional verbal missteps and awkward English pronunciation. English is not my mother tongue. Sounds familiar? The term ‘non-native speaker’ is commonly used to describe people like me who grew up with another language and then learned English later in life. It is time to change this humiliating adjective for one which respectfully refers to our linguistic identity. In the spirit of respect, stop making us apologize for who we are.
Calling someone with nothing is crippling. It is as if a woman is called non-man or a minority is called non-white. If “native” is the so-called norm, then calling someone a “non-native” perpetuates the deviation from the “norm” and does not reflect who the speakers actually are.
We should replace “non-native speaker” with “English learner” or “multilingual speaker”. The change could transform the way we teach students and could change the attitudes of the public to be more welcoming to us.
I came from China in my 30s and have been here in the US for 16 years. I feel like I’ve never achieved the skill I wish I had. I am a lifelong English learner. Many adult immigrants have even more difficulty with English than I do. And a disheartening response from native speakers won’t help.
Putting “no” before “native speaker” emphasizes a deficit. Negation as a prefix indicates that this part of our identity is never enough. In the United States, not speaking English or speaking English with an accent means it is difficult to pass yourself off as an American.
Instead of non-native speakers, we should be called bilingual or multilingual speakers. In fact, people who come to the United States and are educated, regardless of their level of English proficiency, already speak more than one language. Describing ourselves as multilingual emphasizes our accomplishments and that learning English adds to the richness of our identity.
Calling ourselves English learners emphasizes the learning process, that over time we can and will become better at communicating with those who speak English from birth. This name gives priority to the path of growth.
Of course, words have their limits. I am aware that my two suggestions could leave out important meanings. “Multilingual” could also mean native speakers who are learning other new languages, or those who speak more than one language but none of them is English. Some may not like to be called learners of English because it does not value the other languages that a person can speak.
Let’s choose the term comfortable and remind people of it. Personally, I use the two interchangeably. I tell myself I’m learning English, so I’m reminded to keep learning. And every time I hear “Sorry, English is not my mother tongue”, I say, “So you are multilingual. Good for you ! ”