Posts Tagged ‘English’
Lesson 2 from our bumper sticker of last week:
Imagine a group of recent immigrants (with limited English skills) and lifelong U.S. citizens in a room to discuss language issues. Before the dialogue has any chance to make progress, a citizen lets loose with the statement in our bumper sticker.
That’s bad dialogue practice. Obviously. But what makes it bad? There are many answers, but one in particular may help us think more clearly about how we do dialogue.
Let’s start with the basics: the people involved. Each of us is exactly one person. We bring exactly one person’s perspective to any dialogue: a perspective that feeds (and is made up of) our heritage, our experiences, our unique thought processes, our relationships, our time in history, our gifts, our faith.
Outside of hard evidence and factual statements, this is all we can bring to any dialogue. In other words, we speak from what we know. The process of dialogue is, in part, about getting to know more—specifically the perspectives, insights, histories, etc., of the other people in the room.
See how this might work in our hypothetical example. The immigrants in the room could relate their struggles with learning English, or the pain they feel when disparaged by English speakers like our bumper-sticker fellow. The citizens might share their disorientation in a suddenly multilingual culture, or their frustration when talking to tech support experts with limited English skills.
All these sentiments, even the hot-button ones, come from personal experience and—when spoken civilly and deeply heard, without defensiveness or anger—can advance the dialogue. It is sharing with.
Contrast that with “You need to learn English.” By saying this, our bumper-sticker guy is suddenly prescribing an action for someone else—whether it fits her experience or not, whether it even makes sense for her or not. He is now speaking at.
Speaking at objectifies the listener. Mr. You Need To might as well be talking to a wall for all the listener matters in this conversation. He is also assuming that he knows what’s best, not only for the non-English-speakers in the room, but for the society at large. That’s more than one person can know with certainty.
Do “you need to” statements ever have value? Sure. People in interventions can tell their alcoholic loved ones they need to quit drinking. Doctors should tell concussion victims they need to follow instructions. More often than not, however, we know less about what x should do than x herself. We can suggest, we can ask careful questions to help her find her own solution, but rarely can we get anywhere by speaking at.
As our bumper sticker (and its many cousins) make clear, we do a lot of speaking at. We need a lot more sharing with. Only through sharing with can we learn from one another, draw more perspectives into each discussion, and build the collective wisdom that, often, has the best chance of bridging divides and solving dilemmas.
I just lived through an example of speaking at, and I’ll share it next week. But what about you? When’s the last time somebody talked at you? When has someone talked with you? How did you feel in each case?
Uncle Sam wants YOU
to learn English
I saw this bumper sticker while driving up the interstate yesterday, and after the automatic cringe, it got me thinking about a much larger question than the wrangle over English speaking.
To get to that question, however, let’s probe the bumper sticker a bit more. It seems self-evident that learning the language of the country where you live carries many advantages. If I moved to France (please, O Lord), I could get a job, buy stamps, and find a good dentist way more easily by knowing and speaking French. On a broader level, I could contribute more of myself to my new community—through volunteering, writing, promoting political candidates, etc.—by knowing and speaking French.
So in the United States, learning English enables you to transact your business and make a difference in ways that not learning English can’t. Because of this, you might even say that Uncle Sam would be delighted if non-English-speakers learned English, so they can bring their whole selves to the public square.
None of that changes the fact that the bumper sticker is aggressive and cringeworthy. So here comes the larger question:
How on earth can we hear truth—even a grain of it—in an opinion expressed so offensively?
In an ideal world, of course, the people who express opinions this way would become more civil in their speech and their inner lives. In our imperfect world, there’s a strong temptation to simply ignore these folks. And to ignore any hint of what they express.
Maybe that’s the right thing to do. But here’s why it might not be.
I remember a cartoon in which one fellow at a bar said to another, “All I know is, if you’re against pollution, it can’t be all bad.” See the problem? As we dismiss someone we find obnoxious, we also dismiss his perspective—lock, stock, and barrel—and wind up in a place where we don’t want to be.
Examples? Here’s one to start us off: I’m very worried about the growth of the national debt. Have been since long before it became the cause célèbre of the right wing. But I find it very hard to express that opinion when the more rabid wing of the Tea Party has shouted it—and various distortions of it—from the housetops. I feel almost squeezed into the position of “If you’re against the national debt, it can’t be all bad.”
I’ll bet you can think of a hundred other examples. Go for it. Write about them in the Comments section below.