When Language Isn’t a Choice

We often consider our native language as the language we learn unconsciously, surrounded by friends and family who are constantly speaking to us and reinforcing certain sounds we make over others.  However in many cases, one’s “native language” and “home language” can be completely different things.  In the case of immigrants or ethnic families, not being fluent in your surroundings’ official language can cause great difficulties, both social and cultural.

While you generally would not see problems like this in more homogenous countries, it is a common phenomenon in more linguistically diverse nations.  In China, where 56 different dialects are spoken, anyone who grew up speaking something other than Mandarin is liable to be held back by the language barrier between them and their so-called “native language.”

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For example, people who grow up speaking Cantonese at home can find themselves at a disadvantage if they move to an environment that speaks only Mandarin.  While there are similarities between the two dialects, their tonalities, grammatical structure, and written systems are quite different.  Especially for children attending international schools where English is the lingua franca, Cantonese speakers often find opportunities to improve their Mandarin scarce.  And in addition to the communicational handicap, there is also a considerable amount of prejudice from Mandarin speakers, particularly against foreign-born Cantonese who are viewed as interlopers trying to pass themselves off as Chinese.

This is a common problem in western countries as well, particularly in the United States, which has a long history of immigration but in many places is of the mindset that newcomers have the responsibility to adapt to American culture.  Children of ethnic families can struggle between loyalty to their heritage and pressure from a society that often withholds opportunities from non-English speakers.  Hispanic immigrants not fluent in English are often denied jobs cleaning and in childcare that they were counting on, simply because they are assumed to be deficient or disabled in some aspect.  And even those who are able to obtain jobs higher than menial labor are often paid less than an English-speaker would be.

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In 2010, nine states had laws stating that to obtain a driver’s license, you need to pass an English-only written test, claiming that speakers of other languages would be incapable of understanding traffic laws.  With children, the social repercussions of not speaking their community’s official language are similar, with students who struggle with adapting to a new language often deemed less capable than their peers.  All in all, should people have to choose between a domestic language and the language of the exterior world?  When is pressure from family, many emigrating with the assumption that they’ll eventually return to their home country, overcome by pressure from society to fit in and succeed in the workplace?   If you agree that no one should have to compromise between their native tongue and their personal lives and career aspirations, send us an inquiry about the variety of English courses we offer, or try one of our free online language level tests.

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