Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

English as a First Language

Or: An Uncomfortable Portrait of White American Privilege.

I knew going on the plane  in Philadelphia to attend the Lutheran Word Federation assembly in Namibia that I had what would be a really tight connection in the States, so I wondered if I would make it. I told myself that the airport is not O'Hare by any means, so it might be fine, right? My luggage probably won't make it, but there is a chance that I might. Right?

Not so much.

As we took off from Philly, we were already 30 minutes late, and we never made up the time as we few over the stark deserts of the Middle East, which I was seeing for the first time. As we landed, I still believed that I would not actually step on the Middle Eastern continent before heading to Africa. Until, that is, we were told to exit the plane to board waiting buses... and we were parked on the tarmac, and not directly at the airport. And, of course, being at the back of the plane, I waited with about 20 other people for more buses to arrive (in the 90 degree heat at 7 AM local). After the 10 minute bus ride and speed walking across the airport, my rush to make it by the last boarding was in vain.

I was by myself in another continent, watching the very nice Air Qatar people working on finding new flights for me, and I wondered how this was going to work out, especially when they offered to put me up in a complimentary hotel for part of the 18 hours it would be until my next flight, directly to Windhoek Namibia.

I found myself kind of bumbling from one person to another with my reservation clutched in my hand, looking for this hotel (which I thought was within the airport). I was told to follow the signs (there were none) then found myself being told to go through customs (which took a solid hour), then wandered into the hotel shuttle shepherding person, onto a bus, driving into the city of Doha, and praying all the while that someone knew what they were doing and that I would end up in the right spot. Everyone spoke English to me and I asked them English questions, and they all somehow took care of this one lost American.

A lady from India waited in line behind me through customs, and she asked me in broken English if this was the right thing to do to get out of the airport. I told her I thought so. And I began to realize that every person I talked to and would talk to for the next 12 hours spoke my language, and that I had no clue how to even say "thank you" in Arabic. I consider myself to be a pretty competent traveler, but I would have been totally lost if it had not be for these kind, bi- or tri- lingual airport staff.

This was only the beginning of directly experiencing something that I had knew intellectually - I am privileged that the world speaks my native language.

On Air Qatar, all the announcements were in Arabic and in English.

Though the Lutheran World Federation operates in 4 languages (also French, German, and Spanish), most of the speakers presented in English, and most of the discussion occurred in English (though instant translation was offered, I rarely had to use it).

On the last night a group of German graciously invited me to join them for dinner, and spoke to me in perfect English, and I was very aware that my one semester of German in college was woefully inadequate to converse with them in their native tongue. I imagine that it would have been much more comfortable for them to speak in German with one another, after speaking English all week.

Pastors from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa and Asia discussed complex theological concepts in a language not their first, or maybe even their second. I certainly can't do that. These African pastors are so much smarter than I am.

When the world speaks your language, you are not motivated by necessity to learn another. So it is so easy to feel entitled to your own language.

I was told, thought, that American English is a fairly easy version of English to understand. I hope that during my sermon on Tuesday night, I spoke slowly and clearly enough to be understood by those who spoke English, even though copies of my sermon were distributed in all four languages. That's why I thought it was important that for the moment I went "off script" I said "one moment please" in all the languages (and I asked native speakers how I would go about saying it, so I hope I got it right!).

For my fellow English as a First Language Speakers, we do not get that many chances to experience lingual diversity. It feels uncomfortable to us when someone speaks a language we are not fluent it. But it's a good discomfort. It means that we are not the rulers of the world. It reminds us that we don't know everything, and don't deserve everything. It reminds us that we have a place in this world, and that the world is not required to make a place for us. Being a global citizen begins at home with our attitudes with those who are different than us. Embrace the discomfort - for it means we still have much to learn and discover about one another. And then go download a language-learning app and at least become fluent in "Thank You."

Thank you to all those who showed kindness to this mono-lingual, wide-eyed white American thrown  into the (Lutheran) world spotlight. I so grateful to have received such grace. I certainly didn't deserve it.

View of Doha from the shuttle bus. It was 100 degrees outside!

This sorry-looking American is TIRED!!

View from the hotel. I didn't get to explore the city - someday!

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