Learning a language is hard. I’ve studied Spanish off and on for most of my life, and still I am far from what I consider true fluency. When I first moved to Mexico, my words were molasses, poured in fits and starts, agonizing for Mexicans used to their light rail speech. But with very few exceptions, busy retail folks who were fluent in English and wanted me to just get on with it, the people I tried to speak to showed genuine welcome for my efforts, helped me when they could, all smiles and nods and encouragement.
You have to be willing to look like an idiot to learn a new language. You have to do what we are so bad at in this country, feel foolish and stumbling, bumble your way through it, reach for humor if you can in your embarrassment. It’s the only way to move forward. In Mexico, the people in my world there let this be the best it could be. It was still awkward. We don’t like to look stupid. But their reception of my halting, error-ridden Spanish made it okay to keep going, keep practicing. Their welcome of my efforts balanced out the excruciating discomfort.
I wish I could say we returned this favor for immigrants in the United States. And I’m sure in some cases it is returned, kind estadounidenses nodding and smiling and making every effort they can to understand, to appreciate the stumbling English, to welcome the effort. But more times than I can count, instead I see native English speakers here grow rigid when they hear a Mexican accent. Their faces stiffen. Mouths sneer. They seem critical and impatient. In many cases, the immigrant may actually be relatively fluent in English, but the heavy accent alone seems enough to trigger this ugly response.
And if we know how hard it is to learn a second language, how much one needs to practice and practice, feeling like a fool the whole time—is it any wonder many immigrants don’t make themselves this vulnerable as often as they might? If they learn to expect an 80/20 chance, perhaps, that their efforts will be treated with contempt? How many times would you put yourself out on that trembling limb for any occasion where life doesn’t require you to speak a foreign tongue?