The privilege of language

By Emily Colwell

Language is a privilege. This is especially true when English is your native language. English is one of the most universally spoken languages, and last week, I was placed in a position where we were operating in a language that was unfamiliar to me. My fellow team members and I attended an experiential camp hosted by Dream a Dream.

Photo Courtesy of: Dream a Dream

Photo Courtesy of: Dream a Dream

The camp’s target demographic are 12-14 year olds from private schools that cater to students from low-income backgrounds. We were able to spend four days with 32 students and created friendships with them as well as with the other 11 volunteers (as our volunteer group was soon called, the “Zumis”). The four core goals of this camp were to understand ourselves (to help participants lead a life of which they are proud), to learn from each other (team work, empathy, listening, and sharing), to learn to take leadership to build community (strengthen leadership skills), and finally, to have fun (and thus to instill a lifelong love of learning).

At school, students learn English and Kannada (Karnataka’s native language). There were varying levels of English, most of whom were at a beginner level from what we could tell. This experience put English second, literally. One of the camp leaders was our main translator, while the other volunteers also helped out. All instruction, story, activity, questions, answers, free time, and reflection were in Kannada. This is a significant change from our team’s norm of not having to worry about a language barrier because English is so universal.

After hearing long bouts of Kannada, I not only wanted to develop effective listening methods to try to understand, but there was no choice other than having to adjust the way we processed information. I believe we did this both consciously and subconsciously because our brains were trying their best to adapt. When I reflected on it, I discovered how different this task is when using a completely new way of thinking. Despite my tiredness from our nonstop 6:30am-10:30pm days, I sometimes found it much easier to zone out since I could not understand what was being said. In those moments, I told myself that I had to pay attention. In fact, I had to pay extra attention. In an instant, emotion, voice tone/pitch, body language, response cues, and so many other small, otherwise seemingly insignificant things become much more important to pay attention to. The beauty in this is that I genuinely, wholesomely listened; that is, I listened with my ears, brain, eyes, and heart.

Another aspect of this camp was gaining a “family group,” where we typically delved into deeper questions, such as sharing five significant aspects of our life, happy and sad, or going around in an appreciation circle, showering each other with compliments. My fellow Zumi only translated some, as it would have been a lot to translate everything, of course. Although I wish I could have understood what everyone was saying and occasionally found it frustrating that I knew I was missing out on answers to questions (Who supports you, and what are your dreams? What will you leave here at camp and what will you take with you?), funny comments, skits about community issues and their solutions, and knowing what India’s young people like to discuss in their free time, I told myself that I had to be okay with not knowing. It was a bit of a challenge with which to come to terms because it is hard feeling left out; however, this is a space we were entering as foreigners— we should not expect everything to be tailored to or easy for us because that is what we are used to and automatically anticipate English being everywhere.

These memories of telling myself that I had to be alright with the unknown remind me what a privilege it is to not have to worry about understanding. At home, if I am conversing with a non-native English speaker, then they are operating differently for me. Even as we make our way through India (or other countries), everyone else is adapting for us because it is quite clear that we do not know Hindi or Kannada. Thus, we anticipate that our waiters, drivers, coworkers, and strangers will have some English knowledge. Conveniently for us, this usually is the case, feeding our comfort, and more importantly, feeding our English privilege.

This camp experience offered me a taste of what it is like to be the foreigner stepping into a place where the use of English is minimal. When picturing this situation in the US and reversing the roles, I imagine that it would be significantly harder for the Kannada—or just about any other language—speaker in the US. Aside from at an airport, there are not nearly as many signs, instructions, announcements in a language other than English, while nearly anywhere else abroad is going to have the same message in several languages. We are lucky and did not have to study basic Hindi or Kannada before departing home because we knew we would be safe without that background. However, if a foreigner wants to go to the US and has not studied English, they would probably want to know the common words in order to get around with more ease. The world caters to us English speakers, but our home does not extend the same gesture.

By spending four days in a non-English dominant space, it forced me to operate differently. To be an empathetic, global citizen, especially when working toward social change, this experience is key. Unfortunately, though, a space like this is difficult to find. If you can, or happen to find yourself in an environment where everyone else is speaking a language that is different from yours, take a step back, observe, and listen. This is the time to take position as a follower rather than leader, putting understanding the other person first. This is one of the gateways to empathy.

When one is in a space with non-native speakers, some people may back away and become frustrated at the inability to communicate; instead, it is time to discover new ways to forge connections. While it is easy to stay in our comfort zones, placing yourself in a situation of uncertainty, ambiguity, and much discomfort, is when important memories form, when you are reminded of your wealth of knowledge, and when you feel grateful for rare opportunities and humbling moments of learning.

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One Response to The privilege of language

  1. Julie says:

    Emily, thank you for waking us up to the sea of English we swim in so unconsciously. Your view from the “other” space is both wise and enlightening.

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