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 was delighted to see that the US Department of Education uses “English Language Learners” or “English Learners” to identify Kindergarten students to high school students whose “”mother tongue is not English – but actively trying to learn it. ”
We are a country of immigrants. Each year, approximately 1.18 million immigrants arrive in the United States, according to data from the United States Department of Homeland Security. Among immigrant households in the country, only 17% speak English. The rest speak Spanish (43%), Chinese (6%), Hindi and related languages ​​(5%), etc., according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center of the American Community Survey 2017. We cannot claim that the new immigrants can magically speak and write in English upon arrival. On average, it takes four years to master English and fluency in academic English can take four to seven years, according to different studies. And keep in mind that this data is for K-12 students, who learn relatively faster than adults. The more you start to learn a new language with age, the more difficult it becomes.

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.

When it comes to native English speakers, we cannot deny that it is assumed that someone who speaks American or British English is white. But think of Indians and Singaporeans, who were also born in English, but are not considered native speakers or in some cases do not see themselves as those.

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.

Spielberg’s authentic use of Spanish in “West Side Story” contrasts starkly with, say, the then president Donald Trump mocks Puerto Rico with a Spanish accent during Hispanic Heritage Month in 2017, just weeks after the island was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. Spielberg’s decision to refrain from subtitles in the 1961 film remake, on the other hand, shows respect for the language and its speakers.
If the United States does not stand up for China's ethnic and religious minorities, who will?

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 ! ”

Language is not just what we pronounce, but our history and our identity. We cannot claim to be a diverse society if we ignore all the colorful languages ​​that immigrants speak. The mourning of death bell hooks this week I revisit his words of wisdom in Teach to transgress, “This call for the recognition and celebration of diverse voices, and therefore diverse languages ​​and discourses, necessarily disrupts the primacy of Standard English. Spielberg has shown us, a nation historically obsessed with the idea of ​​domination, that respect is a courageous choice and that multilingualism is our true color. This is who we are.


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