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Who has the Monopoly on Language?February 15, 2017
Being different might make you seem spontaneous and unique. To my ten-year-old self, however, being different was quite the opposite. My difference: I spoke a different language than everyone around me. Trying to adapt to a new country is bad enough at the age of ten, but to learn a whole new language seems almost impossible. I still don’t know how I managed it, especially with parents that had Limited English Proficiency.
I had no idea there was a term for it, but there is: Limited English Proficiency. A person with LEP is someone who had to learn English as a second language. It affects their fluency and thus their communication skills in English. My parents were definitely two of those people. I used to go to the mall and different kinds of stores with them because we liked doing things as a family. This was when I was still new to the English language, so being with my family was one of my few comfort zones. Seeing my parents struggle with English was kind of irritating to me. I wanted to help, but I just couldn’t… at least not at that age.
As I grew older and older, I would start answering phone calls, making phone calls, and talking to customer service people for my parents’ questions and requests. It was a heavy burden to bear, but they needed me so I had to try to help; even if it was just as simple as ordering pizza.
Of course, there were harder situations, like speaking to some governmental institutions. I had to speak to my school regarding almost everything because my parents weren’t really able to get the message across correctly. I helped (to the best of my abilities) when it came to embassies, passport agencies, Secretary of State, and doctors’ offices. I’m the youngest of three children, so trying to help wasn’t really something I was used to. When you’re the youngest, you’re the baby of the family, pampered and taken care of, and you have nothing to worry about. This wasn't exactly true in my case, because I was the best English speaking family member at that time. I suddenly had a lot more responsibility than most of my peers. This made it that much more difficult to fit in as a teenager.
I will never forget the first few experiences I had in the summer/fall period we moved to the USA. My parents’ accents were incredibly heavy. We would go to stores like Walmart in a group. My siblings and I used to beg our dad for video games and DVDs (at the time, DVDs were everything ). We loved to play board games, and we had our eyes set on the “super elite” (as we thought) electronic Monopoly game. The three kids, of course, couldn’t help because our English was still bad. I had to keep my mouth shut and tried my best to avoid turning red at the way my dad was explaining it to the sales associates at the store.
“Monopoly,” he said with a heavy accent. The sales associate was really confused, so he told us to wait as he went to fetch another associate. When he came back with the woman, my dad explained it again… or, tried to explain it. Even my mom joined in.
“Monopoly,” they both said. “You know, when you buy… and when you sell…” my dad emphasized the concept of the game, hoping to get across…something . I had heard it at school, so I said it without the accent, in an effort to help them understand as well. Eventually, after 10 minutes of random conversations, pieced together by the closest words my parents could think of, the sales associates told us they had no more in stock. It turned out our struggle never really mattered.
That memory has stuck with me. I don’t know if it was because my parents felt incredibly embarrassed, the sales associates had been somewhat offensive, or because I decided to help and the reps understood me. It was definitely a milestone for me to be able to say something in my first month or two, even if it was just to ask for a Monopoly board game. Getting to grow up with them was inspiring to me, because I got to have the best of both worlds, in a way. Though, of course, I couldn’t see it at the time. I would see people I knew around the Secretary of State offices, and I would try and hide because I was embarrassed of being different. I didn’t want them to think I was related to anyone with LEP. Eventually I learned that I didn’t care. Others’ actions and thoughts don’t determine mine. I continued to help my mom and dad and I became comfortable with it over the years. It had started out a burden to me, but soon became a responsibility I appreciated. If most of what I had to do was as simple as ordering pizza when my parents couldn’t, then where was the burden?
When I think back on those times, it causes me to reflect on the current way people with LEP are viewed. If I was embarrassed, judgmental, or negative about my own parents, what does that mean for those who didn’t share in a similar experience? With language access via interpreting and translation services slowly becoming the new norm, and immigration being a main topic of conversation during the current presidential debates, how does my story relate to those who grew up in America and only speak English? Does it at all? I find myself wondering what steps I can take to make sure people from all countries can buy a board game or order delivery. What can I do now that I couldn’t do when I was younger? How can all of us in the younger generation step up to the task of making the country a place where no 10-year-old is embarrassed of his parents asking for a board game?
Special for Bromberg by Laith Faraj