Sunday, February 13

Why don't they learn English?

Scot McKnight had this sign as a fun item on his blog yesterday. And it is a bit humorous -- that someone so obnoxiously passionate about English can't spell in English. Also the sign is pointless since you can't expect people who don't know English to understand that this sign in English is telling them to learn English. It's a silly circle.

In a sense though, this sign goes beyond silly. It is an indicator of something quite troubling. The problem is in the tone -- the tone which has become all too common -- and not just in Crestwood, Illinois.

Yes, of course, people should work on learning the language of the place and the people with whom they live. And since English is the "lingua franca" of the 21st century (at least the first part of it) there is added incentive to learn it.

Of all the immigrants and international students with whom we've worked in the US over the years -- almost all of them have really really wanted to improve their English. A few older people have given up, figuring that they're past the age of learning. So, why try? But on a whole, people do want to learn the language. However, they struggle to squeeze language learning into their already overloaded survival schedules. Some of them don't know how to go about learning. Many come out of situations with sub-par education -- where they didn't really learn how to learn. And some of them just keep putting it off in the same way that most Americans put off mastering an additional language.

The point being -- it is ineffective to harangue immigrants over their language skills. It's certainly not motivating. Perhaps the village might better use its sign to advertise language classes or to welcome immigrants. People who feel welcome are much more likely to learn the language because they WANT to fit in. They want to be a part of a society that is positive, welcoming, and engaging. The more we harass people for their weak English skills the less likely it is that they'll want to learn the language.

In other words, the sign, even if it were written by someone with a command of the English language, is self-defeating and counter-productive. If we want people to learn the language we have to treat them like we care.

"Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you." ~ Jesus, Luke 6:31 (CEB)
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