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.