I used to think I loved and understood immigrants. I taught ESL in the States to immigrant and refugee children during the day and helped with free ESL classes for their parents at night. I volunteered with refugee youth groups and activities and lived in a neighborhood with a high immigrant population. I had taken some Spanish classes in high school and college and I thought that meant I understood what it was like to learn a new language.
So I decided to move to Mexico to teach at an international school in a large city. I thought I would improve my Spanish dramatically just by living and working here. As it turns out, I live with Americans, work with Americans, sometimes go to English services at church, and spend all of my free time with Americans. I speak Spanish in taxis, when ordering food at a restaurant, and when grocery shopping. Period. Unless I seek out opportunities to speak in Spanish, I could literally go weeks without having to say more than “Buenos dias” and “Gracias”. And there are Americans here that do just that.
Sometimes I get into longer conversations with people and I can tell they are judging my accent and grammar. They usually ask how long I’ve been here and then something semi-sympathetic about how difficult Spanish is and how different it is from English. Then they’ll tell me my Spanish is great, and then they’ll stop attempting conversation.
The fact of the matter is, if you look at me and speak clearly and semi-slowly, I can understand anything you say to me in Spanish. I’ve taken classes and worked hard at learning this language and at this point, I really do speak it. But people give up on conversation with me the first time I say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that,” or even when they just hear my accent. When I go to the Spanish service at church, during greeting time people have long conversations with each other, but they just say, “Buenos dias” to me. They clearly not only think that I don’t speak Spanish, but that I am actually unintelligent and that working through our language barrier isn’t worth it. It’s frustrating and humiliating and difficult to change, and it makes it very hard for me to improve my Spanish.
In thinking about this problem here, I realized how incredibly unmerciful I have been to immigrants in the United States. English is a hard language and many immigrants live in communities where they don’t get to use it on a daily basis, much like my community here in Mexico. Americans get frustrated when immigrants speak heavily accented or grammatically incorrect English, but when it comes down to it, the reason they don’t speak better English is because you won’t speak it with them.
I have learned this year that grace and mercy are a universal language and that they can be spoken into any conversation. Grace and mercy look like fighting to get to know me even when I might be hard to understand, calling me to hang out even though we have trouble having a conversation. I’ll get better at speaking your language and you’ll get better at mercifully correcting my mistakes.
Prejudice against people who speak poor English is a self-perpetuating problem. If you want immigrants to speak better English, you need to be willing to build a relationship with them, even before they speak perfectly.
You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
Rachel Haltiwanger is a third grade teacher at an international Christian school in Guadalajara, Mexico. When she’s not teaching or trying to learn more Spanish, she blogs about travel, language, and faith over at www.theinspiredstory.com.
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