Immigrants and immigration-related identities are among the many important stories of faculty, staff, and students in our diverse MC community. Thus this series seeks to challenge harmful myths surrounding immigrants and immigration, with each reflection focused on challenging a particular myth. Facts and statistics presented in the series come from a resource called “Common Myths about Immigrants and Immigration in Tennessee” that was developed by Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN) and adapted by Blount County United (BCU) Education Committee and Blount County Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). “Common Myths about Immigrants and Immigration in Tennessee,” 2011.
Reflection by DR. MELANIE V. TUCKER
Myth #6: Immigrants don’t want to learn English and need government encouragement.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, more than 75% of immigrants speak English well within 10 years of arrival. Beyond 10 years, less than 3% are unable to conversationally speak English. Today’s immigrants understand that learning English is vital to full participation in Western society, and are learning English just like immigrants of the past. Two powerful ways to help immigrants learn English is to enable them to work and interact with native English speakers, and to improve ESL programs within community settings and in elementary and secondary schools. https://weareakin.wordpress. com/2011/11/07/common-myths-immigrants-tennessee/]
My first understanding of English as a second language occurred in the first grade. Three students from Cambodia joined our community. I was paired with one student to help her with reading and writing English.
We initially used pictures, hand gestures, and non-verbal communication. Though she arrived speaking Khmer, she rapidly picked up English. I don’t remember other students reacting to another language being present in the classroom; I was too young to pay attention to how teachers or parents felt. Without learning English, however, these students would not have had access to public education.
In middle school, a student joined our community from the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. Her first language was Bosnian. She started learning English through music and TV shows, which made for entertaining conversations. We had a number of classes together where I noticed she was occasionally disregarded by students and teachers.
As we progressed into high school, she verbalized the frustrations she experienced of being discounted due to her accent or word choice. Again, without learning English, she would not have had access to public education.
When I witnessed my friends speaking their native languages, they seemed different—happier, freer, more engaged. These experiences informed my view of immigrants learning and speaking English to how immigrants incorporate their native language, culture, and sense of self with their Western experience.
In some ways these experiences came full-circle through adopting my daughter and bringing her into the United States as an immigrant. English is my daughter’s second language. Her first language is Mandarin.
To help us begin communicating, we used pictures, hand gestures, and non-verbal expressions, along with sign language. During our time in her native country, her experiences with us where foreign—beyond language.
New family, sounds, clothes, toys—all unfamiliar. Our hosts occasionally spoke Mandarin, and I could see my daughter’s face and body relax every time she heard either of these ladies’ voices.
My daughter is learning and speaking English. We also read books, listen to music, and watch movies in Mandarin, use Spanish and German occasionally, and sign language on a regular basis.
I want her to learn that English does not make her who she is, and that she is part of a global society where access and inclusion intersect. I want her to learn that while our society focuses on immigrants speaking English, there is also room to honor native languages of immigrants.