Last summer I had the privilege of doing a summer study abroad session, that included a 6 week stay with a host mother, and the chance to live and study with students from all over the world.
When I talk about my experiences there, I tend to focus on the positive: how beautiful the town was, how interesting it was to live with a host mother and students from other countries, etc. But the flip side of the experience was how difficult it was, and how I experienced a deep challenge to my own sense of identity. I found out that when you can’t communicate fluently with others, they judge you, and not very fairly. Even if you explain that you’re learning. Even if you know the answers to questions, but you just can’t phrase them perfectly. My language skills were perceived as lacking, and many times I was looked at as being dumb.
This experience, difficult as it was, actually opened my eyes to some aspects of language learning. I can understand why an immigrant family would want their children to become fluent in the dominant language, whatever that may be, so they don’t have an experience like mine. And just because someone can’t communicate as fluently was we expect them to, doesn’t mean that they don’t understand what’s being said or feel that judgement. In fact, most of the time I was able to comprehend what people were saying, I just wasn’t capable of responding quickly or with the exact words I wanted to use.
I was so glad I had this challenging experience, not only as a linguist, but as a human being. It’s an experience I hope, and dread, to have again.