Language and Sense of Belonging

One time, I was at a deli in Queens, New York. At that, I was at a deli where nearly all of the customers (me being the anomaly) speak Russian. Amid some confusion with another customer over who was at the front of the line to get served, I was told the following by the customer, while that person attempted (unsuccessfully) to skip me on line:
“You are in Russian grocery store. You must speak Russian.”

When I was told this by another customer, I felt awkward. I felt like I didn’t belong in there.

People may read this story and feel sorry for me. But please don’t feel sorry for me. Here’s why: what I experienced for ten seconds at a deli is what millions of people in America experience on a daily basis.

That mindset is in so many places. There are people in this United States, particularly on the far right, who want to deport immigrants who don’t learn English. Across the pond, in the United Kingdom, one of their recent prime ministers used threatening language about people in his country who were unable to speak English. A man at a Spanish restaurant in New York threatened to call ICE on people who were speaking Spanish.[1] The attitude that I experienced in that Russian deli is shockingly widespread when it comes to scenarios when we encounter people who don’t speak “our language.”

And if I felt awkward for being told that I didn’t belong in a Russian deli I could easily leave, imagine how much worse it must feel to be told that you don’t belong in the United States (or another country you’ve settled in), that you must leave or be deported because you don’t speak the “native language.” It would be an understatement to say that it must feel awkward, just as I felt awkward in that deli. No, it must hurt really, really badly.

So if we encounter someone who doesn’t speak “our language,” please try to understand that the person’s sense of belonging is already being challenged. We don’t need to (and we shouldn’t) challenge someone’s sense of belonging even further by saying that they’re not welcome simply because they don’t speak the language we speak. To the contrary, everyone, regardless of the language each person speaks, is part of our human family.

[1] I made a decision to not include links to any of these stories and mindsets because they do not deserve more of a platform than they are already getting.

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20 Replies to “Language and Sense of Belonging”

  1. Having grown up overseas, and looking nothing like the citizens of that country, I learned what it feels like to be an Other. This might not be true for all people, but I think more folks would be tolerant and understanding of others if they themselves experienced the feeling of being on the outside.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree. Part of the problem, I think, is that many of us don’t have that experience of living on the outside. As a result, many of us are used to giving stares (at best) when we see someone who looks different from us.

      Your comment reminds me of one thing I want to do one day when/if I have children: have them experience too what it’s like to be an other. It may get my children out of their comfort zones, but it’s an experience that can give them compassion for people who are an other.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Traveling in Latin America and Europe I have always tried to learn a few words in the “native language” in the countries I was in. Without exception people have always been gracious at my faulty attempts to communicate. Language and culture are closely linked, of course. But tolerance for the “other” seems to be lacking in some folks. Traveling abroad would be a good experience for “nativists”. I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad that people have been gracious with your attempts to communicate! If only

      You’re right that tolerance of the other is lacking in some folks, unfortunately. Ideally, travelling abroad would be a good experience. However, if one doesn’t have the money for that, at the very least spending significant time in places of a completely different racial, cultural, and economic demographics from ours would be helpful.


  3. I learned a lot from being one of the host families to Russian children from when I was around 9 through 14. Those three weeks every summer, for several years, were just magic. All the American kids, and the adults, learned so much on a daily basis. It gave me so much perspective! I also had the grand opportunity to travel to Moscow for a week in January 2001.

    I also took Spanish for six years, starting in eighth grade. Sadly, I’m not fluent at this point. But, I agree with the sentiment in attempting to learn a few of the basic words and phrases when traveling to other countries where English is not always spoken. I know it helped me in France!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow Laura. It sounds like you’ve had a lot of experiences (and powerful experiences, at that) as both the host to people considered “other” and as being the other.

      It seems like a lot of people agree with the sentiment that attempting to learn a few of the basic words and phrases when traveling to other countries where English is not always spoken is a good idea (which I agree on).

      There’s also a lot of sentiment here agreeing that the way forward from treating the other in such a negative manner is by pushing ourselves to have experiences as the other.


  4. “You are in Russian grocery store. You must speak Russian.”

    No, you are in an American store in America, it is wonderful that people speak Russian there, but they still have to serve customers in English if the customer doesn’t speak the language.

    I live in an Upstate area where we are more likely to hear Russian than we are Spanish if we overhear a conversation in a foreign language.

    It is great to retain the old country language, but people must be able to do business in English, too.

    Occasionally, I have short conversations with people po Russki, and as often as not, they end with the other person telling me, his Russian is rusty, and he is Ukrainian or Polish.

    English is our only common language.


    1. Hmmm…

      It is actually a Russian grocery store in America (this one deli). Semantics aside, I don’t think the problem is someone struggling with English in America, for example (the people who actually served me were not an issue by the way; they treat me kindly). English is a hard language and we native English speakers often don’t appreciate how hard English is. The problem is when we use a language barrier as an excuse to treat someone rudely, as somehow inferior. That was what happened to me that one time, and that is what’s happened to many others on many occasions.


  5. Language is always a sore point for people. Language and culture are linked. Losing one’s language means rejecting one’s culture. When my grandparents came here from Poland they spoke Polish. My mother spoke both Polish and English. By the time my generation came around my parents had rejected Polish and never taught us Polish. Too bad. Being bilingual would have been wonderful. But the idea was if you want to assimilate into America you totally rejected your European heritage.

    That was unfortunate. America is not an “English” nation, it is a multi-cultural nation. What makes the US unique is the absence of the “tribalism” of extreme ethnic identity. Of course, the “white identity” movements try to pretend that all white people share a common heritage, but that is ridiculous. From the very beginning the US has been a multicultural nation.

    I was in NYC a few years ago and went to a Polish bookstore. Everyone spoke Polish, except me. The customers. The clerks. I thought it was great. A little ethnic enclave in the big city where folks from the “old country” might recapture some of their lost cultural identity. And just enjoy speaking in their native tongue.

    We can appreciate diversity without losing our own unique identity. There is no reason to demand that all people speak the same language or follow the same customs as we do. As long as they follow the law . In areas where cultural practices collide with our legal system which emphasizes individual rights, we should always reject cultural practices. Other than that, I say , “Vive la difference”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes yes yes. I completely agree.

      Language is a sore point for many! You’re right about that.

      I agree with you that America is multicultural (and my part of America, also in NYC, is especially multicultural). Along those lines, speaking a language different from others should not be a problem as it is in my one story, or as it is for “white identity” movements. But yet, it often is a problem.

      Enclaves do exist, like the enclave you were in. And sometimes, if you venture into those enclaves you may encounter some language barriers. I certainly have. And that’s okay. But it’s not the barriers that are a problem, but the usage of those barriers as an excuse to treat someone poorly (as I said in an earlier reply).

      Oh, and out of curiosity, what part of NYC were you in? I live there so I’m curious (plus I’ve spent some time in some of the Polish enclaves in Brooklyn and Queens, particularly Ozone Park, Maspeth, and Greenpoint).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Brendan….I think I was in the Greenpoint area, if I recall correctly. It was a very Polish area. Went to a great Polish restaurant. My daughter had lived in Brooklyn and for some reason she went to Greenpoint She was shocked and amused. She said: “All the old ladies look like Busia!” My son and daughter did live in Brooklyn (at different times) but the cost of housing is so exorbitant that they just could not afford it.
        My brother and I (both old guys) traveled to Poland last year (Krakow, Wroclaw, Gdansk, Warsaw) and it was a great experience. This year it is on to Prague, Vienna and Budapest. Which means I have to start practicing phrases in 3 languages !
        Actually, my brother and I are now looking for places to stay for a short (3 or 4 day) trip to NYC this May. My wife and I have done Air B and B in the past and have been pretty satisfied with them. NY real estate prices are just absurd. Don’t know how a working person can manage.I guess renting out space on AirBand B helps.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, yes. I’ve spent a little time in Greenpoint, and it’s definitely very Polish. I hope to spend more time around there, as it strikes me as a very nice neighborhood! It’s also very expensive, now. Real estate prices around here are absurd.


  6. Thank you. One of the things I do in my bivocational ministry is teach for the Humanities Council in ELL classes and the gifts I have received are tremendous as well as the recognition that it is actually pretty easy to communicate with a person who has a different language from mine if I don’t panic or get defensive. The world has so many words and phrases and gestures in common.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, Maren. And thanks for the work you do as well! While I have not always been the best at learning languages, I have a great appreciation for those who don’t get defensive about differences in language (and actually embrace those differences).


  7. This is written with poise. When it comes to addressing topics of immigration in our current political climate, I find that many people attack the opposing view. Rather you simply proved an argument worth discussing. I could relate to your situation on a different level so it felt good reading this piece. Thank you for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Vanessa. Oftentimes we like to attack the “other” for not conforming to how “we” are. But in reality, we can sometimes be the “other” and realize just how problematic it is to treat someone from the “outside” with such strong disapproval.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. “There are people in this United States, particularly on the far right, who want to deport immigrants who don’t learn English.” So your immediate default is to slander those on the right. No, we just want to prevent illegal entry in to this country – especially by criminals. I do not feel at all sorry for you, since you would probably just hold up the line. It appears you are the one who is prejudiced, with hatred for anyone who disagree with you.


    1. Crabby,

      With all due respect, I think you’re misunderstanding what my post is about and what I say.

      My post is not about illegal immigrants–it’s about the question of how to treat people who do not speak the same language as you do, or as I do. There are many legal immigrants who don’t speak English fluently (or that much), and some reports suggest that millions of citizens don’t speak English to one another. I find it odd that you mention illegal immigration because I didn’t mention illegal immigration once in my post.

      Additionally, I am not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. The people we should feel sorry for are people who some of us say don’t belong in a place because they don’t speak the dominant language. And that’s a group that, as I said, include legal immigrants and U.S. citizens.

      Finally, as to accusations of slander, it’s not slander when you’re speaking the truth. And the truth is that there are people on the far right, in both the U.S. and abroad, who have called and continue to call for deporting people who don’t speak English. In contrast, there are many others on the right who are okay with people being in this country as long as they follow the law.

      Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that you’re trying to challenge my thoughts on this issue. I think we’ll probably have to agree to disagree.


  9. Crabby. I think you may be overreacting to the author’s points. But let me digress a bit. What does it matter what language a person speaks? It says nothing about his or her character, honesty, value as a person, etc. English is certainly the dominant language in most of the USA, but it is hardly the only language spoken by millions. I don’t know why speaking a different language would bother anyone.No one is forced to speak a language other than English, so what’s the problem?

    As you may or may not know, most illegal immigrants do not come across the border with Mexico . Most come on legitimate visas through airports and overstay those visas. That is a very difficult problem to solve. It would take an addition of manpower to check on these folks (which means higher taxes). But I agree with you that this a problem that we need to deal with.

    You talk about “slander” of the right wing.Let me suggest something else.

    Slander against liberals. I hear it stated over and over that anyone who does not want to build a wall across Mexico is in favor of “open borders”and is in favor of “letting criminals” into the US. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is border security that SOUNDS good and border security that works effectively. Those are not necessarily the same thing. A big, beautiful wall sounds good. But is it worth the massive cost ($30-65,000,000,000) ?

    The question is: Is that the most effective way to control the borders? We know, for a fact, that 85-90% of all illegal drugs come through legal points of entry, for example. A wall does nothing to stop the bulk of illegal entries or the bulk of illegal drugs.

    The GOP and Dems in Congress just met in a committee that met with BORDER PATROL experts on the best way to spend money to secure the borders. A big wall was just not one of the ways. The experts agreed. It is a waste of money for a number of reasons. Just because people have different views of how to secure the border does not mean they want “open borders”. That is the slander that is put out there regularly by the White House spokesmen.It is dead wrong to claim that liberals want “open borders” or want “criminals” to enter the USA. Talk that that prevents well thought out solutions to the issue.


    1. Joseph,

      I agree with much of what you said. Though once again, this post wasn’t really about illegal immigration, which was why it was odd that Crabby brought up illegal immigration. There are lots of people who came in legally but didn’t and don’t know English. There are even citizens who struggle with English. The whole issue of language and sense of belonging does not necessarily have to be tied to illegal immigration.


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