How Insensitive are English Speaking Americans to Non-Native Speakers?

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Alex Attardo

ENG 103.003


5 November 2012

How Insensitive are English Speaking Americans to Non-Native Speakers?

How insensitive are English speaking Americans? Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue and Chang-Rae Lee’s “Mute in an English Only World” prove how hard it is for immigrants to connect, socialize, and be comfortable in America. The mothers in both stories have a rough time being accepted; they both rely on their American born child to communicate for them when people do not give these women the time of day. To further this frustration, Dennis Barron’s “Don’t Make English Official—Ban it Instead” satirically points out that it is a ridiculous argument to try and make English the official language of the United States; however, there are people out there that do not have the patience for immigrants who are learning to communicate fully and vividly in English.

All of three of these essays stress the importance of knowing the English language in America. A perfect example of this is in Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” when her mother is not taken seriously:

And the doctor finally called her daughter, me, who spoke perfect English—lo and behold—we had assurances that the CAT scan would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any suffering my mother had gone through for a regrettable mistake. (176)

Tan, who grew up learning to speak English in a classroom setting, could stand up for her mother, just as the Chang-Rae Lee had to also help his mother in social settings. Lee recounts of a time that his mother had to wait to come home and wait for him so that she could go run errands: “I loathed the task [shopping], partly because it meant I couldn’t spend the afternoon playing catch with my friends but also because I knew our errands would inevitably lead to an awkward scene, and that I would have to speak up to help my mother” (433). Lee knows that his mother is going to have a hard time conversing with other people in social situations, and the same is true for Tan and her mother. In Dennis Baron’s Essay, “Don’t Make English Official—Ban It Instead,” he states: “A common language can often be the cause of strife and misunderstanding… Banning English would prevent that kind of divisiveness in America today” (461). Baron’s proposal is ironically correct. If you do not speak English in America, you will feel ostracized and disconnected from most of America. Though Baron’s essay is satirically showing that learning a language is easy by making it seem as though it is easy to learn English; however, this idea of a common language disconnects many immigrants from the natives in America which Barron is aware of and thinks it is ridiculous that people are not sensitive to the fact these immigrants are trying.

Baron essay points out the failures in the logic of the arguments for an English only America. Baron states:

On the other hand, opponents of official English remind us that without legislation we have managed to get over 97 percent of the residents of this country to speak the national language. No country with an official language law even comes close. Opponents also point out that today’s non-English-speaking immigrants are picking up English faster than earlier generations of immigrants did. (440)

As Barron knows this is true, there would be no reason for Chang’s and Tan’s mothers struggle to learn the spoken language and connect with the rest official English-speaking America. These immigrants may be “picking it up,” but they are by no means being treated like they are learning. They are being treated as though they are foreigners with a communication problem.

Then out of the same mouth, Baron says, “they fear a horde of illegal aliens adamantly refuse to acquire the most powerful language on Earth” (440) ;however, this is not true for both Lee’s and Tan’s mother who are both trying to learn this language. Lee tells us about how his mother “used flashcards and phrase books and watched television” (433) in order to learn this language, and on the same note, Tan’s mother tried numerous times to connect with people who could speak perfect English. Baron’s statement makes it seem as though these immigrants are narrow minded and do not want to connect with everyone else, which is completely false. How do you expect these immigrants to learn this language? Oh, Baron tells us how: By banning the English language.

In Baron’s essay his argument is that by banning it, everyone will want to learn it: “In the end though it doesn’t matter what replacement language we pick, just as long as we ban English instead of making it official. Prohibiting English will do for the language what Prohibition did for liquor. Those who already use it will continue to do so, and those who don’t will want to try out what has been forbidden” (442). The issue is that people want to learn English! Baron’s logic is that these immigrants are adamantly refusing to acquire the most power language on this Earth, when in fact in both the other Essays these immigrants are trying their hardest to learn English! Why would these immigrants want to be disconnected from society and feel shamed in not knowing how to speak proper English?

One of the biggest issues that all three of these Essays talk about is shame. Although Tan’s perception of her mother has changed, she believed her mother’s broken English gave off the perception that she wasn’t intelligent:

I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother’s ”limited” English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. This is because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. (175)

In the same respect, just imagine how shameful it was for Tan’s mother to rely on her daughter to communicate, which is how Lee and Tan relate: both mothers needed their child in order to communicate outside their own homes. Lee describes a situation in which his mother goes into a crowded butcher store, is afraid to talk to the intimidating butcher, blurts out the Korean word for what she wants, and then is looked at as if she is an idiot and in the end is not serviced. Lee remembers his mother after the incident: “She was furious, almost vibrating with fear and grief, and I could see she was about to cry” (434). This is shame at its finest. She is so completely ashamed with the fact that she cannot communicate in the same way as the butcher. All she needed was someone to be patient with her. Another shameful situation is when Lee is doing impersonations of his family members. His dad laughs but for his mother, Lee says, “for her, the English language was not very funny. It usually meant trouble and a good dose of shame, and sometimes real hurt” (433). When Lee did his impression of his mother, he ended up being smacked on the bottom. She couldn’t even take a joke because of how ashamed she was by her English; this is why I completely disagree Baron’s essay when he states that “these immigrants are adamantly refusing to acquire the most powerful language on earth” (440). These immigrants are trying their best to learn the language! Why would they want to live in shame? However, what Lee and Tan recognized in their mothers was their intentions.

In both Tan and Lee’s Essays they make evident how important intentions are. Tan states, “ I wanted to capture what language ability test can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts” (179). This shows that in any language what matters is intention. Regardless of how “broken” Tan’s mother’s English was she still wanted something, which is intention. This is the same for Lee’s mother. Regardless the intention behind what she was saying was present: “In Korean, she could be fiery, stern, deeply funny, and ironic; in English, just slightly less so. If she was never quite fluent, she gained enough confidence to make herself clearly known to anyone, particularly to me” (434). This is why intention is important. Both of these women are not ashamed of their speech in their own languages, but they are in regards to English. This is why I do not agree with “banning” English, which is what Baron’s Essay brings up. These immigrants are trying their best to learn this language and their intentions are present; however, Baron brings up that opponents to English, “encourage everyone to speak both English and another language” (440).

However, this does not hold true when you are the immigrant trying to learn English in America. These immigrants are discriminated against. If it is encouraged to learn another language, then why do people look at immigrants as if they are crazy, when all they are trying to do is learn how to communicate in society using a language that is foreign to the. Lee eloquently brings this up: “I wonder what these people would have done if they had seen my mother studying her English workbook—or lost in a store. Would they have nodded gently at her? Would they have lent a kind word?” (435). This is exactly what baron does not realize: People are trying to learn English, so you do not have to ban it! The solution is to offer classes of that these immigrants can learn this language and not feel ashamed!

Both Tan and Lee demonstrate how powerful language is. American culture heavily relies on speaking English as the primary way to communicate. When non-English speaking immigrants come to America, they are thrown into a world filled with disconnection to the English speaking natives. Non-English speaking immigrants are trying to connect, and most of society is not patient with these immigrants. Baron brings up that English should be banned in order to be learned, which he knows is a ridiculous argument. Unfortunately, there are people who do think that every American should only speak English. Since American culture has not ushered a way to help these immigrants, now is the time to be sensitive, and help immigrants connect with society.

Work Cited

Baron, Dennis. “Don’t Make English Official—Ban It Instead.” The Norton Sampler: Short

Essays for Composition. Ed: Thomas Cooley. Seventh ed. New York: W.W Norton, 2010. 440-43. Print.

Lee, Chang-Rae. “Mute in an English-Only World.” The Norton Sampler: Short Essays for

Composition. Ed: Thomas Cooley. Seventh ed. New York: W.W Norton, 2010. 432-

35. Print.

Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The Norton Sampler: Short Essays for Composition. Ed: Thomas

Cooley. Seventh ed. New York: W.W Norton, 2010. 173-79. Print.

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