Imagine this: you go out to a fast-food restaurant and order a burger. While you wait for your order to be filled, you anxiously hope that the server will get your order right and that the food in the bag will be exactly what you wanted. Sometimes, that is what happens, and you feel a great sense of accomplishment and gratitude. Other times, you get the extra hot sauce that burns your tongue and the chicken that your child refuses to eat. When that happens, you experience a sense of shame and guilt. Not even for a second do you entertain the thought of returning the incorrect order and asking for a substitute.
Sounds strange? Well, this is not someone with an anxiety disorder or a social phobia but an immigrant who does not (yet) speak the language of their new country (well). It is the story of one of the three Colombian and Mexican immigrant women in Canada featured in MIS DOS VOCES (My Two Voices).
Immigrants are often imagined as reluctant language learners. There is no shortage of politicians and media personalities demonizing immigrants for not “wanting” to learn the language of their new country and exhorting them to take “personal responsibility.”
In reality, however, learning a new language as an adult immigrant is incredibly difficult.
What makes it so difficult is the dual challenge of learning a new language while simultaneously having to do things through the medium of that language.
For language learners, ordering a burger is both a practice opportunity and something they need to achieve to live their daily life. But the server is not a language teacher, and the other customers are not classmates who are also learning. The server might be impatient or downright hostile to a customer who seemingly cannot even clearly state their order. Other customers might consider them a nuisance who are holding up the queue.
Even so, ordering a burger is relatively low stakes. Getting the extra hot sauce or the chicken instead of the beef may dent your confidence but it is not going to make a huge difference to your overall well-being.
Oftentimes, the stakes are much higher. When immigrant language learners apply for a job, seek healthcare, engage with their child’s schooling, or confront domestic violence, they always face the dual challenge of simultaneously learning the language and living their life through that language.
For immigrant language learners, there is no structured curriculum.
For immigrant language learners, there is no structured curriculum. A learner may just have mastered the art of ordering a burger, but the follow-up lesson about how to complain if something goes wrong may be out of reach.
Furthermore, “teachers”—who are, of course, technically not teachers but interlocutors the learner needs to engage with—may well teach different and sometimes even conflicting lessons.
When these lessons collide in a society that has no understanding of the challenges of migrant language learning, the consequences can be disastrous.
One of the women in MIS DOS VOCES tells how she was taught by the women’s shelter where she had found refuge from her abusive husband to never give out her address. She had learned to only ever share a P.O. box address to protect her safety and that of the other women in the shelter.
Unfortunately, this is not how immigration authorities understand a P.O. Box address. To them, not having a fixed address constituted grounds to place her in immigration detention. No matter that she actually had a place of residence. In the world of living your life through the medium of a language you are still learning, not divulging an address becomes equatable to not having one.
Self and others
Interactions with the state, as in this example, can be the most damaging. Even the interpreter present during the immigration interview did nothing to explain or intervene. To the woman, it felt like another betrayal rubbing in her disempowerment.
If ordering a burger is stressful because you cannot defend yourself in the chance anything goes wrong, imagine the terror that an immigration interview instills: a little misunderstanding and you might find yourself in deportation detention.
Yet, the façade of incompetence that the majority society sees in immigrants is only one side of their lives. Immigrants are not just deficient speakers of the majority language. To live your life through a language which you have not been socialized into from birth is an act of immense courage and bravery.
MIS DOS VOCES makes those acts of courage and bravery visible. Additionally, it shows us the women in their native language: as lively, engaging, and competent individuals who have interesting and complex stories to tell.
The achievement of MIS DOS VOCES, then, is twofold: first, it highlights the struggles of adult language learning as they are inextricably enmeshed in going about one’s daily life. Second, it makes visible the complex experiences of the three women that are much richer in Spanish than the insistence on only interacting with them through English can ever allow.
As such, the film is a plea to take bilingualism seriously.
For the women, a sense of belonging in Canada has emerged from having learned English to such a degree that they can now comfortably inhabit both their Spanish and English voices.
For the majority of society, it is a lesson that full and equitable social inclusion has a linguistic dimension, which requires institutional arrangements that accommodate to the diverse linguistic resources and needs of all its members.
Ingrid Piller is Distinguished Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.