“Many cool,” said the guy who comes to mow our lawn in the summer and fall. It took us a while to figure out what he meant. It was an unusually breezy afternoon, and when he gestured by putting his arms across his chest, it struck us that he was trying to say that it was very cold that day. Hailing from Puerto Rico, the fellow has extremely limited English-speaking capacity and tries to convey his messages the best way he can. But he needs to be applauded for the fact that despite his deficiency, he manages to earn his livelihood by offering landscaping and lawn mowing services to his clients, the majority of whom communicate with him in English.
English is, in a vast majority of cases, the lingua franca for most people all over the globe, and it goes without saying that knowing the language well puts one in an advantageous position. We, of course, encounter the complexities, just like the minor confusion that arises now and then at the crossroads of British and American English.
A classmate long ago in my statistics class at the University of Tennessee was clueless when I asked her if she had a scale that I could use for a graph. The commonly used term in America is “ruler”, and she obviously did not understand. It took me a while to refer to the last letter of the alphabet as “Zee” and not “Zed” as I pronounced it in India. Till I got used to writing the American way, Microsoft Word pointed out quite a few errors in my writing during its spellcheck. For instance, I would add an extra “l” to “traveling”, and would forget to omit the ‘u” from “color”, “flavor”, and “humor”.
Being well-versed in English is undoubtedly beneficial, but by no means should it confer upon one a superiority complex with the feeling that he or she is speaking the chosen language of the divine. For that matter, no language is better than all the rest. Each is unique in its own way. It is important to realize and accept the fact that not being able to speak or not being fluent in English is by no means an indicator that one is less intelligent than someone who has mastery over the language. The brilliance that an individual has can be demonstrated minus his or her English speaking acumen.
The United States is rightly called a melting pot with its fusion of varied nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities. The country has been a home to approximately 44 million immigrants. But does that mandate that one should be familiar will all the nitty-gritties of the English language? Definitely not! It is perfectly fine for those people whose mother tongue is not English to express their thoughts and feelings in their own native language. It’s wrong to expect them to speak flawlessly.
Unless it is one’s personal desire, one should not feel the pressure to perfect one’s English. As arrogant and sad as it sounds, we do find people who are opinionated about those who are not too comfortable speaking in English. They jump to conclusions that anyone who’s not fluent or talks with a strong accent cannot be bright or clever.
Sometimes the situation works the other way too. No one wants to hear a snide remark being passed. For the fear of facing embarrassment or being ridiculed, someone who is otherwise smart but not at home to communicate in English cannot muster enough courage to step forward and interact with others. Since they lack the confidence, they are not able to utilize their potential to the maximum possible extent.
Language is the sweet thread that unites, and it is natural for us to look for someone who speaks the same tongue as us. But we need to broaden our vision of life and make an honest attempt to accept and incorporate into our world those who converse in a medium different from ours.
Why should any particular language be considered the be-all and end-all power defining one’s personality? The beautiful film from Bollywood, English Vinglish (2012) centers around that point. Shashi, a very efficient homemaker and part-time entrepreneur is often mocked by her husband and daughter because of her lack of English-speaking skills. This motivates her to enrol in an English-speaking course when she visits New York. In the process, she gains something more important: self-respect. The movie ends on a very emotional note when the protagonist, while delivering a speech in English at her niece’s wedding ceremony, talks about life’s core values: how we need to accept people with all their shortcomings without being judgmental. And in a further subversion of English’s supposed status as the almighty tongue, she chooses a Hindi newspaper over an English one on the flight back home!
Earlier this year, a story from the small town of Newton, Massachusetts tugged at the heartstrings. Samantha Savitz was born deaf, but as she grew up she developed a very warm personality and was always eager to chat with the neighbors whenever her parents took her out. Not being able to interact with the two-year-old because they did not know sign language, the residents of the town took a step which spoke volumes about their kind and humane values. The entire community started learning sign language so that they could communicate with the lovable toddler.
We pass the test of humanity when we look beyond differences and open-heartedly embrace people who are not the same as us, as our own. Nothing else but the fine chords of empathy and respect binds human beings in a tight knot and takes mankind in the path of progress.
Rashmi Bora Das
Rashmi Bora Das moved to the United States from India in the early nineties. She has a master’s degree in English from India. She did her second master’s in Public Administration from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Rashmi is a teacher with a passion for writing. Her other interests include traveling, listening to music and watching films. She lives in Atlanta, GA,