When I hear someone say, “Why don’t they just learn English?” I want to politely turn to them and say, “Why don’t you just jump off a cliff?” Not because I hate English. I encourage non-English speakers to learn English in the same way I encourage native English speakers to learn a foreign language. Language is more than just a form of communication; language is the way the world is seen. Language is culture.
Stripping people of their language is stripping them of their culture. Many Americans who have not learned another language do not realize how important words are to defining a culture. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Because we must think with words, the words we have define the thoughts we have.
Prior to studying abroad, I didn’t understand language in correlation to culture. But while living in Germany, I learned that many words in English didn’t exist in German and that many words in German didn’t exist in English. The non-existence or existence of words either limited or enhanced my understanding of the world I was living in.
Shortly after returning to the United States, I began to relate to many immigrants. I understood why they preferred speaking their native language over English – because only half of who they were could be expressed through English. Sadly, many Americans are not accepting of people who choose to express themselves and their culture the only way they can.