Communicating Grace

I’m an American-Canadian immigrant and I teach at a bilingual university where I am required to function in both French and English. I mostly teach, supervise students, and research in English, but many of my service obligations are in French and I’m involved in some Quebec research groups that are run in French. All of this was a choice & I’ve lived an exceedingly privileged life to get where I am.

However, whenever I am in a meeting where I must speak French, I feel so much slower and dumber. I speak up less. I argue less strongly. I doubt my abilities and my reading of the room and/or whatever we’re talking about. Such is what I signed up for, and in many ways, I like it as part of what I’ve long been calling a praxis of humilitytm  so this isn’t a call for sympathy or me flexing.

Rather, I really don’t think that many who are born speaking English realize the privilege that English language skills bring to the table. It is rare that an English-language speaker has to learn a second language for any reason. Not to take a trip, not to get a job, not to relocate to someplace safe, not to teach a class without criticism for “without” an accent, not to order a coffee, and not to live freely in the world without judgement or attack from passers-by offended that there might be a conversation in which they don’t get to be a part.

It makes me consider what it’s like to be forced to relocate, forced to speak a different language, and to arrive in the new place and then be ridiculed for poor English & treated like you’re dumb because you can’t express yourself properly. Or those for whom their language IS an official language but are told that they should just adapt to the majority, since “rationally” it makes sense to have fewer people be forced to learn a second language. It also reminds me of my mother whose breath and words were literally taken away from her by the ALS that killed her. She was the first woman dean at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Western Illinois University and one of the most articulate and quick witted people I’ve ever known. However, she went on to be treated like she had a cognitive impairment simply because she slurred her words due to weakening muscles and a loss of control over her mouth and vocal chords.

I’m given such grace in my efforts to stumble through my language abilities. I am grateful to live in an age of Google Translate (as problematic and error prone as it may be) and to work where bilingualism is maintained with extensive supports for everyone working or studying here. Still, speaking a second or third language can be exhausting and demoralizing and frustrating; even for those of us who chose this and are reasonably competent at doing it. The ability to speak words and be understood is a fundamentally distinguishing characteristic between humans and animals. To deny people this freedom of expression, as awkward as it may be, is to deny them their humanity.

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