by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem
The Daily Mail has published an article about a British postmaster’s controversial move: He’s refusing to serve customers who don’t speak English. Complicating matters is that the postmaster, who works in a culturally diverse section of Nottingham, is of Sri Lankan decent. He became a naturalized British citizen 17 years ago.
“I tell them if they don’t speak the language and they can’t be bothered to learn, then don’t bother coming here,” the Daily Mail quoted Deva Kumarasiri as saying.
In making this statement, Kumarasiri ignores his background of privilege. For instance, later in the article, we discover that he learned English in school in his native Sri Lanka. This is an opportunity that scores of immigrants never receive.
The author of the article doesn’t say what age Kumarasiri was when he began to learn English, but studies have shown that the younger a person is when introduced to a language, the better chance the person has of mastering it. So, if Kumarasiri was a minor when he learned English, he has an additional edge over the immigrants he accuses of not “bothering to learn” the language. And is it fair to say that the immigrants in his area haven’t bothered to learn? I could argue that Kumarasiri didn’t bother to learn English either. He had to speak English by virtue of being a student in a school that instructed him in the language.
Throughout the article, Kumarasiri continues to make arguments that are downright shoddy. He resorts to using offensive clichés when he says, “If you don’t want to be British, go home.” Even when he puts more thought into his explanations for banning non-English speakers from his shop, his points are flawed. For example, Kumarasiri argues, “The fabric of the nation begins to unravel if we don’t all speak the same language.”
Really? Well, how does he explain Canada, an officially bilingual country? It hasn’t unraveled because some of its citizens speak French and others speak English? I’m not denying that there has been much tension in Canada over this issue. There’s even been talk at certain points of time that the country would split over the language issue, but ultimately that didn’t happen. Canada remains intact. And in early 20th century America, Western and Eastern Europeans did business in their native languages and sent children to schools where they could be taught in those languages. There’s also Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. A former British colony, English is spoken throughout the country but so are about 400 other dialects. If a country were to unravel because not everyone spoke the same language, Nigeria would certainly be at the top of the list.
Despite the holes in his argument, Kumarasiri has received overwhelming praise from Daily Mail readers, with many arguing that a white person would have been called racist for taking such a stand.
“Thankfully he has been allowed to make his point without fear of being branded as a bigot!” one reader wrote. That reader also remarked. “If all immigrants [who] came to this country were like this marvelous man, would anyone ever have a problem with them? I think not. Unfortunately too many seem determined not to embrace this country in any way, shape or form.”
With the last point, the reader strikes the subtext of the article and of Kumarasiri’s claims. The argument here isn’t simply about language but about assimilation and the “threat” posed by Britain’s immigrants from the Indian subcontinent’s Muslim countries. Kumarasiri has to be a Union Jack waving, English-speaking immigrant to show that he is “safe,” much in the same way that Barack Obama cannot express anger without fear of alienating white America.
“When I left Sri Lanka I left behind that country’s culture, customs and language,” Kumarasiri explained. “I have done my utmost ever since to be part of this country’s culture.”
I feel empathy for Kumarasiri if I view him as a brown man who is attempting to “belong” in a white imperialist nation that may consider him a threat if he doesn’t assimilate. Moreover, as Britain increasingly becomes the home to the natives of countries it once colonized, it is suffering from an identity crisis that has made Brits increasingly resentful of immigrants. Hence, Kumarasiri’s very public declaration of his allegiance to English customs and language can be taken as a plea for Brits not to resent him as they do other brown immigrants. “I’m not like them,” he seems to be saying with this move.
While I can empathize with Kumarasiri, I take issue with his characterization of immigrants who don’t speak English. Yet, I’m aware that many Americans have the same views of non-English speakers in the U.S. My perspective on language politics was forever changed when, a decade ago, I accepted a teaching position with the Los Angeles Unified School District straight out of college. My task? To help 30 fourth graders at an elementary school in South L.A. become fluent English speakers.
Most of my students’ parents, who came from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, spoke even less English than their children did but routinely implored me to turn their kids into fluent English speakers. That said, the idea that some immigrants are willfully determined not to learn English is ridiculous to me. These parents knew that having their children master English would create countless opportunities. If given the chance to learn English themselves, I have no doubt that the parents would have seized the opportunity to do so. However, most parents were working class or poor and could not pay to take an English class or be tutored in English. The work schedules of parents often impeded them from taking English classes as well, which suggests to me that more businesses which employ non-English speakers should create opportunities for such workers to learn the language.
The other obstacle to learning English is fear. Even the nine and 10-year-olds I taught feared that they would be ridiculed for making mistakes when speaking English. It is a fear that I shared when trying to converse entirely in Spanish with their parents. Wondering if I was rolling my R’s properly or if I was using the subjunctive when I should have been the using the preterite or another tense could all too often trip me up when speaking Spanish. And for Spanish speakers, using words in English that contain the “th” sound or begin with the letter S were just as daunting. The problem is that many of the fears my students had about speaking English were valid.
People in U.S. who speak English with a foreign accent are often dismissed, ridiculed, rudely received or told amazingly that they are not speaking English. These blows to the psyche make it easy for an English language learner to simply withdraw and give up on speaking English.
Because of the chilly reception English language learners receive in the States, I was surprised to visit Spain and Italy several years ago and encounter people who didn’t care if I spoke Spanish and Italian imperfectly. They just wanted to communicate with me because I was a fellow human being. Italians, in particular, went on and on while speaking with me, despite the fact that I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying. But a funny thing began to happen. The more they spoke to me, the more I was able to comprehend and the less self-conscious I felt about attempting to respond to them in Italian. If English speakers want to facilitate a growth in the amount of English being spoken in their communities, they need to embrace non-native speakers of the language rather than shun them.
(Thanks to reader Ama for sending this in!)
(Photo Credit: The Daily Mail, via Raymonds Press)
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