Editor’s Note: Ching Ching Tan teaches Public Speaking for Nonnative Speakers at San José State University. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project, and currently writing her memoir, NATURALIZED. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Director Steven Spielberg deliberately omitted subtitles for scenes in Spanish in his remake of the film “West Side Story” which is currently in theaters. “If I subtitled the Spanish I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish. This was not going to happen in this film, I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it,” he said. This is a bold move, as speaking a language other than English in this country inherits an apology.
Please, forgive my occasional verbal stumbles and awkward English pronunciation. English is not my first language. Sounds familiar? The term “nonnative speaker” is commonly used to describe people like me who grew up with another language and then learned English later on in life. It’s time to change this demeaning adjective for one that respectfully refers to our linguistic identity. In the spirit of respect, stop making us apologize for who we are.
Calling anybody non-anything is invalidating. It’s like a woman being called a non-man or a minority being called non-White. If “native” is the so-called norm, then calling someone a “nonnative ” perpetuates the departure from the “norm,” and does not reflect who the speakers really are.
We should replace “nonnative speaker” with “English learner” or “multilingual speaker.” The change could transform how we teach students and could shift public attitudes to be more welcoming toward us.
I was excited to see that the US Department of Education is using “English Language Learners” or “English Learners” to identify kindergarten through high school students whose “native language is not English – but who are actively trying to learn it.”
We’re a country of immigrants. Each year, around 1.18 million immigrants arrive in the US, according to data from the US Department of Homeland Security. Among immigrant households in the country, only 17% speak English. The rest speak Spanish (43%), Chinese (6%), Hindi and related languages (5%), and so on, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the 2017 American Community Survey. We cannot pretend that new immigrants can magically speak and write in English as soon as they come. On average, it takes four years to achieve English language proficiency and academic English proficiency can take four to seven years, according to different studies. And keep in mind that this data is for K-12 students, who learn relatively faster than adults. The older you start learning a new language the more difficult it becomes.
I came from China in my 30s, and have been here in the US for 16 years. I feel like I have never achieved the proficiency I wish to have. I am a lifelong English learner. Many adult immigrants struggle with English even more than I do. And a discouraging response from native speakers won’t help.
When it comes to native English speakers, we cannot deny that the assumption is that someone who speaks American or British English is White. But think of Indians and Singaporeans, who are also natively born into the English language, but aren’t seen as native speakers or in some cases don’t consider themselves to be ones.
Putting “non” before “native speaker” emphasizes a deficit. The negation as a prefix signals this part of our identity is never enough. In the US, not speaking English or speaking English with an accent means it’s hard to pass as an American.
Spielberg’s authentic use of Spanish in “West Side Story” drastically contrasts with, for example, then-President Donald Trump mocking Puerto Rico in a Spanish accent during Hispanic Heritage Month in 2017, just weeks after the island was slammed by Hurricane Maria. Spielberg’s decision to refrain from subtitles in the remake of the 1961 film, on the other hand, shows respect to the language and its speakers.
Instead of nonnative speakers, we should be called bilingual or multilingual speakers. In fact, people who come to the US and are in school, however different their level of English mastery, already speak more than one language. Describing us as multilingual emphasizes our achievements and that learning English adds to the richness of our identity.
Calling us English learners emphasizes the process of learning, that with time we can and will get better at communicating with those who speak English from birth. This name gives priority to the journey of growth.
To be sure, words have their limitations. I am aware that both of my suggestions could leave out important meanings. “Multilingual” could also mean native speakers who are learning other new languages, or those who speak multiple languages but none of them is English. Some may not like to be called English learners because it does not value other languages a person may speak.
Let’s choose the comfortable term and remind people about it. Personally, I use both interchangeably. I call myself an English learner so I am reminded to keep on learning. And every time I hear, “Sorry, English is not my first language,” I say, “So you are multilingual. Good for you!”
Language is not only what we utter, but our history and identity. We can’t claim to be a diverse society if we ignore all the colorful languages immigrants speak. Mourning from the death of bell hooks this week, I revisit her words of wisdom in Teaching to Transgress, “this call for the acknowledgment and celebration of diverse voices, and consequently of diverse language and speech, necessarily disrupts the primacy of standard English.” Spielberg showed us, a nation historically obsessed with the idea of domination, that respect is a courageous choice and that multilingualism is our true color. It is who we are.