I am an English language speaker with basic capabilities in Spanish. One reason I chose to study abroad in Barcelona was because of my familiarity with the language (I studied Spanish throughout middle and high school and did a month abroad in Málaga during high school), so I knew I could get by with the vocabulary I already possessed. Easing into life abroad in Spain was made easier by enrolling in Spanish class at CEA, giving me the opportunity to practice and expand my knowledge of the language weekly.
I spent this past weekend exploring and adventuring in the Swiss Alps in Interlaken, Switzerland. During this trip I learned they spoke two main languages in this area of the world: French and Swiss German, neither of which I knew a lick of. Going to a country where I knew none of the language, and outside of tourist spots people do not speak English, was a huge culture shock. It feels isolating and desperate not to be able to communicate with the humans around you. Asking for directions or asking for a restaurant recommendation were sometimes not options, so me and my friends felt like we were on our own to navigate our way around the town. For me, it put into perspective how new immigrants must feel when they enter the US and have little to no knowledge of English. A common phrase heard around the United States is “speak English, you are in the United States”. This statement, already ignorant, felt even more uneducated and moronic as I stood at a ski store trying to explain to the storekeeper which items I wanted to purchase and received a blank look. I cannot imagine living long term in a country where I knew none of the language, and would be expected to learn “on-the-job”. As far as I have seen, in the US people do not make an active effort to speak to foreigners in their native language, and many people only speak English, so this task would prove almost impossible. This experience has given me a new perspective and insight to the experience of non-English speakers who come to work and live in the United States, and I definitely empathize with their plight.
This empathy I gained is relevant at a time that the United States is considering policies that bar immigrants from visiting, working, or gaining permanent residence in the US. As an outsider in Switzerland, all I wanted to do was enjoy the country and experience the area for myself without causing disruption. This is how I imagine most American immigrants feel, they are just trying to enjoy a new place and start a new life , and just because they have not yet mastered the English language, does not mean they do not deserve a chance to enjoy America.