I am an English-learner. Though I learned it while very young, I still recall what it was like to not understand, to frantically search for the right words, to feel like you just couldn’t say what you wanted and how you wanted. My whole life, I’ve been around people of different ages at the various stages of learning to speak English. It has been my “normal.”
But it isn’t everyone’s “normal.”
The truth is, there is a tension that non-native-English-speakers in this country face: if we don’t speak English at all, we struggle to communicate and understand. If we learn just enough to get by day-to-day living, we are told it is not enough. If we master it but retain our accent, we are mocked or judged by those without one. And if we master it without a trace of an accent, people condescend to us by acting surprised that we could achieve that at all.
Recently, there have been very public instances where people have been shamed for speaking Spanish in public places. A cook in a New York City restaurant was threatened with a call to ICE if he didn’t stop speaking Spanish in the kitchen with his coworkers. A 92-year-old Mexican man in Los Angeles was violently beaten while being told to go back to the country where he came from. And I’ve personally witnessed people impatiently deal with non-native-English-speakers in customer service positions, only to wait for them to walk away to mutter under their breath that this is America and that we should speak English well to live here.
These stories are discouraging and hurtful, to say the least. And yet, I continue to believe that the diversity of language is beautiful, hospitable, and anointed — all qualities that could lead us toward greater unity.
The Beauty of Language
In my very, very biased opinion, Spanish is more beautiful than most other languages in the world. It uniquely reflects the nuances of the human experience. The two states of being (ser and estar), the two ways to know (saber and conocer), and the two words for loving (amar and querer) are just a few of the examples of how Spanish paints a beautiful, and more expansive, view of reality.
Giving a place to this kind of expression allows us to think in unique and creative ways, and constantly challenges us to improve communication. The more we embrace the diversity of language and receive it as a gift — whether it is Spanish or Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi, etc. — the more capable we are of broadening our worldview and seeing beauty articulated in different ways, which is a good thing.
The Hospitality of Language
For many years at a restaurant where I worked, if I heard someone struggling through their English I offered to speak with them in Spanish. Sometimes they would persevere, wanting to keep practicing their skills in English regardless. But most would smile with relief, feeling seen and known, and continue the rest of the transaction in Spanish with ease. Those smiles are vivid images I wouldn’t trade for anything.
There is an incomparable sense of hospitality when a person is received in their native tongue that begins to undo the barriers that might exist between two strangers. Our ability to welcome a diversity of language as a gift means we are fostering community for the many different people that live in this country. It tells them that they belong here, too. Even when — and maybe especially so — when we don’t understand it, receiving a different tongue with joy conveys a sense of welcome to the other.
The Anointed-ness of Language
It is no coincidence during the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, one of the signs confirming the divinity of the moment was that the people understood each other in spite of their language differences. If you recall, the division of language was a consequence of original sin, one that was taken to new heights at the tower of Babel. And yet, the Holy Spirit didn’t eradicate the diversity of language when He came upon the disciples. Instead, the Scripture tells us that they all heard the Good News shared in their native tongue. He could have just created a new language for them to share (because the Holy Spirit is just that powerful), but instead the multiple languages are used to gather God’s family together.
This is a powerful image of hope in the midst of our differences. Our different languages have been redeemed by the Spirit of Pentecost. So long as we remain in that Spirit, we can be as one.
Siempre Adelante/Always Forward
To my non-bilingual brothers and sisters: Can each of us as Christians, filled with this same Spirit by virtue of our Baptism, continue to serve as beacons of unity? Here are just a few ways you can encourage the diversity of language in others:
- If a friend or classmate mocks another because of their accent or the way they speak English, ask them to stop doing so and to apologize.
- If you find yourself complaining about a foreign priest’s homilies being difficult to understand, instead take a moment to pray for them and thank God for the great effort they are making in sharing the Good News with your community.
- If you have friends who speak a foreign language, ask them about what some of their favorite words and phrases are, or even make an effort to learn some phrases so you can speak it with them and their family.
Taking these steps, however small they might seem, will help us move toward unity.
To my bilingual brothers and sisters: Continue to speak Spanish (or Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi, etc.) with your family, with your friends, in public and in private, in secular or Church settings. Do not let fear and intimidation win; rather, be grateful for the beautiful gift that it is to have an additional vehicle for expression in thought and in speech, and the many ways that it expands our abilities and our capacity to relate the Good News to the world. Share the diversity of language that has been restored by the presence of the Spirit, trusting in the power that He gives for understanding.
This is and will always be important.