The first time I went to China was four years ago. I was 19 years old, had never left the U.S. before and had taken one Mandarin Chinese course at my university (I could basically say “ni hao” and order coffee with questionable, sometimes unidentifiable pronunciation). A week or two after I arrived, I found myself lost and alone in the suburbs of Beijing. I had just gotten off the subway and was looking for a bus stop, so I found a man sitting alone and tried to explain the problem to him. I don’t even remember if I tried to speak broken Chinese or English, but regardless, he didn’t understand me.
At that point, I kind of expected him to just leave and I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had. But instead, he pulled up a translation app on his phone and stood with me, trying to decipher the bad translations that came up on his phone when we attempted to speak to each other. He helped me look for the bus stop, and along the way, he bought me some bread and cherries. I was in his country, interrupting his daily life and speaking my own native language, and he was completely nice to me. This shouldn’t be shocking, but I would guess that a lot of non-native speakers in the U.S. haven’t had the same experience. After all, one of my friends from China told me that when she studied in the U.S., some people mocked her and made her feel insecure about her ability to speak English, even though she speaks it well.
This is an interesting level of judgment coming from people who often can only speak English. According to a YouGov survey, about 75 percent of Americans are monolingual. The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait found that the majority of people in the U.S. who speak another language proficiently are foreign born or U.S.-born children of immigrants. This means Americans are judging people for not doing something to their standards, when they can’t do the same thing at all.
Judging someone for not speaking English fluently is racist and xenophobic. I think we all know plenty of native English speakers who don’t speak perfectly either. In addition, what many might not think about when they criticize someone for not speaking “perfect” English is that learning another language is really difficult. Anyone who is speaking “broken” English is speaking a second or third language better than many Americans can.
I’ve studied Mandarin Chinese for several years now, and still, it’s hard to put sentences together. Following conversations is challenging, especially when multiple native speakers chat with each other, using slang or speaking quickly. Sometimes I say something simple and people don’t understand me. Maybe it’s because my pronunciation is bad, or maybe they look at my face and don’t really listen. Either way, I feel like an idiot sometimes, and it’s embarrassing to not be able to say something that I would be able to express so clearly in my native language. I am an educated person, but when I speak Mandarin, I sound like a child. It can be frustrating, but it’s something that I have the privilege of not dealing with too often.
I’ve spent over two years in China, and it’s often possible to find people who speak English. Knowing Mandarin is nice, but I know many people who live in China and can’t speak Mandarin at all. Speaking English as a first language is a privilege in that it often makes us feel like we can waltz around the world and be understood. Some of my friends in China who are native English speakers get frustrated when they speak English in China and the person they’re speaking to, often at a restaurant, doesn’t understand them. This, in my opinion, is ridiculous. Though many people study English and it acts as a sort of common language around the world, native English speakers shouldn’t hop from place to place, speaking like they always do and expecting everyone to cater to them and understand them.
Learning a language is difficult, and I understand why people might not be motivated to try. But at the very least, we should hold back the judgment and hostility when someone speaks with an “accent” or when someone doesn’t speak “perfectly.” Make an effort to understand. Listen closely. Don’t treat people who speak two or more languages like they’re stupid.
And if we hear someone speaking their native language around us, before we jump to the conclusion that they’re talking about us, consider why they would be speaking their second or third language with other people who speak their native language. They’re probably basking in the comfort of speaking the language they’re most familiar with. Even as my Mandarin gets better, whenever I want to express myself and make sure that I’m getting my point across, I want to speak my native language. And unlike many people, I often have the privilege of being able to do exactly that.