I was invited to a meal by a Swiss family who knew I could speak Spanish. They had also invited two Guatemalan pastors who were visiting Switzerland. I was to serve as interpreter for the conversation between the Swiss family and the Guatemalans. Swiss German to Spanish. Spanish to Swiss German.
This was not an easy task for me. Neither is my mother tongue. At one point in the conversation the Swiss man asked the Guatemalans a question. I turned to them to translate the question and repeated the question to them verbatim in Swiss German. I had no idea what I had done until everyone else at the table burst out laughing.
I am a polyglot. This means that I speak several languages. This does not mean that I am totally fluent in every language I speak. When people ask me how many languages I speak, I reply that I am still learning English. The more I learn in each language I speak, the more I realize how little I know. Languages evolve and words and expressions that I learned 30 years ago are no longer used, and many new ones have entered the language.
I learned to speak Spanish after I was 19 years old. I learned to speak Swiss German after I was 32 years old. I’ve learned to understand other languages along the way, but English is my mother tongue. I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I can express myself much better in my mother tongue than in any other language. This bears itself out with two simple illustration from my own experience. There are two things that one would rather do in their mother tongue no matter where they are or what they are speaking. Count and pray. Trying to figure out how much something costs for me always gets translated into English. No matter how long I’ve lived somewhere. Same thing with prayer. God understands me better in English.
It is true that sometimes when I am completely immersed in the language that is not my mother tongue, I find myself thinking in that language. Yet, when it is time to go into a store or some other space to speak with someone new, I find myself composing sentences in my head before I enter. This never happens in English. I have enough resources in my native tongue that I can simply enter a new space and begin to express myself.
English has become the lingua franca of the world. It is the official language of the European Union. Moreover, English is spoken by millions of people around the globe, but only about 20% of them speak it as their native language. Even though they may well get along in English at a certain level, they probably cannot express their deepest longings. Even though they may find themselves thinking in English when immersed in it, they probably still count and pray in their native tongue. They probably begin to think of what to say before they enter a store.
Because English is so wide-spread, many US Americans assume that it is not necessary for them to learn other languages. This is a very arrogant stance. As I have experienced when speaking languages other than my mother tongue, no matter how advanced I am in that language, I am still at a distinct disadvantage. So when we assume that we can use English wherever we go, we are putting at a distinct disadvantage those who do not speak English natively.
Indeed, some communication is better than no communication at all, but we need to be aware the dynamic we are setting up when we demand that the other person speak our mother tongue. The reason that English is so ubiquitous is because it was the language of empire builders. First the English and now the US American empire. So as a native speaker of English from one of these empires, not only do we put others at a disadvantage when assuming that English is the language of communication, we also reaffirm our power advantage and privilege. Even just a few words in their language helps level this power dynamic—how much more when we can put together complete sentences and paragraphs in the others’ language.
I am a polyglot. Like translating between Spanish and Swiss German, I love the challenge that communicating in languages other than my native language brings. However, I am still most comfortable speaking in my native tongue. Learning another language helped me to be more humble about the relationship between languages and the people speaking them. As we communicate with those who do not speak our language natively, we need to keep this in mind.