Speaking a Strange Language in a Strange Land

I am one of a group of parishioners who are helping to welcome Catholic refugees in my diocese. Because I know French, I serve as an interpreter. Today, I accompanied a refugee to the doctor. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak French or English.

I have forgotten what it is like to not understand English. I forgot how vulnerable you are when you don’t know the language of a region, when you speak a language no one else speaks. I learned English in kindergarten, but I had to go to a speech therapist for a year to correct my mispronunciations. I was ridiculed for mispronouncing peoples’ names or accidentally blurting out answers to math problems in Farsi. At the age of 9 I suddenly quit speaking and writing in Farsi. Today, I only remember a few words and expressions.

The woman I was accompanying speaks a language only a few Americans know. The hospital claims to have interpreters for over 200 languages, but they didn’t have a human interpreter for her. Thankfully, they did have an electronic interpreter, so she was able to get the help she needed.

It is tempting wish that everyone could speak the same language. But language has a cultural component, so linguistic diversity implies cultural diversity.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jews of different nationalities were suddenly able to understand each other on Pentecost without learning new languages.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine (Acts 5-11).

God wills that all of us may hear and understand each other even though we may speak different languages. We should celebrate the diversity of languages in the world.

The woman I accompanied today is currently attending an ESL program, but modern language programs need to improve in America. The United States is one of the few monolingual nations in the world. While more and more students are learning Spanish, many Americans don’t understand the point of learning another language. I hope interacting with the refugees will help my fellow parishioners appreciate the value of learning other languages.

There are children attending my parish who can’t speak English yet. I worry that they will be pressured by their English-speaking friends to renounce their native languages. I’d like to think that American elementary schools are becoming safer places for immigrant children. But I’m not so sure…


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