Life Lessons Languages Have Taught Me—Part 3: Empathy

“Just remember, when someone has an accent, it means that he knows one more language than you do.”

Sidney Sheldon

I met my friend Muhammad around 2007 or thereabouts when I was in my early 20’s. I had just become interested in the Arabic language, and he had just arrived in the United States as a refugee from Iraq, where he had most recently worked for the United States army as an interpreter.

It was a chance encounter in an apartment complex in a suburb of Seattle. But when I began speaking the few Arabic phrases I knew with him, he enthusiastically invited me into his apartment for tea. We talked for a little over an hour about the Arabic language and what life was like in the Middle East. I was amazed at how well he spoke English, given that this was the first time he had ever been in an English-speaking country.

He invited me to come back another time, so I took him up on his offer. Muhammad and I would hang out in his apartment usually a couple of times a month. He would help me with my Arabic homework, or with reading a passage of something in Arabic. His face would always light up when explaining anything about Arabic language or culture.

But after about a year, the tone was very different during one of our chats. He told me he was thinking of returning to Iraq. Our visits had always been positive and upbeat, but now he started to open up to me about incidents of racism he had been encountering; of people singling him out because of the way his face looked or because of his accent.

Mind you, a war was still raging in Iraq at the time, so I was naturally afraid for him to go back. When I said as much, he said “Mikha”, (my name in Arabic) “I was trained as a doctor in Iraq, but my medical diploma means nothing here. The best I can hope for here is to work at a gas station or in a grocery store.”

He didn’t say this in anger. He said it with the sad resignation of someone who has been disappointed one too many times in life. He said it in a way that made me think of an older brother explaining to his younger sibling something he knows they’re still too young to fully understand.

That was the last time I ever spoke with my friend Muhammad. The next time I tried to get a hold of him, I couldn’t reach him. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s safe and doing okay.

Learning languages has taught me to be more empathetic of immigrants for two main reasons.

Languages Have Broadened My World

If I hadn’t been learning Arabic, I probably never would have gotten to know Muhammad. Learning a language is (or at least should be) about more than just learning new sound patterns and grammar. It involves learning about a people. Because I learned languages like Russian, Romanian, Arabic and Spanish, I got to know people in my area who spoke those languages and hear their perspective on what life is like as an immigrant.

Learning languages has also opened up the opportunity for me to travel. Living in other countries has taught me that there are more ways of doing things than just the way I was raised with.

But it has also taught me what it’s like to have people make assumptions about you because of where you’re from, or to hear well-meaning people talk about how “backwards” something in your culture is. The first time that happened me, I wasn’t prepared for how oddly personal it felt. It was as though I was being told my own mama had raised me wrong.

I knew the person didn’t mean to be offensive, so I tried my best to shrug it off. But I also made up my mind right then and there never to make someone else feel that way. Now whenever I meet someone from another part of the world, (even from a different part of my own country) I try not to make assumptions, but instead to just ask questions and be genuinely interested in the answers. Learning about other cultures should be about appreciation, not evaluation.

Learning a Language Hits a Reset Button

A lot of times, I feel like I speak a language like the “i can haz cheezburger” cat.

At the time of writing this, I have spent over 35 years perfect-o-fying my mother tongue—English. While I will never know all of the words in the language, I can generally talk about whatever I want. When you start learning a new language, you have to start over from the beginning.

Imagine wanting to say “I’m looking for a hot water heater that is medium size, not too expensive and easy to install.” But all you can do is Google a picture of one, point to it and say “You haz dis? How much?”

Going through countless experiences like that myself has taught me that if a person has a hard time speaking my language, it doesn’t have anything to do with their intelligence. Their whit, intelligence, humor, experience, education, etc. are all locked behind a big thick wall called “the language barrier” and they’re likely working hard to break through it.

This is a very humbling experience for adults to go through. As I wrote in my last post, children in general don’t mind sounding silly, but most adults understandably want to be taken seriously.

Going through this process myself has greatly increased my respect for language learners, and especially for immigrants to a new country, who may have to learn not just a new language, but an entire new way of life all at the same time.

In Summary

In 2020 the United Nations estimated that there were about 281 million migrants around the world. That’s more than the population of Indonesia—the fourth most populous country on earth. I can’t learn all of their languages (much to my chagrin), or claim to understand everything every one of them is going through. But learning languages has helped me to be more empathetic with them. I’m sure I’m not the only language-learner who feels that way.

Cover photo by Hasan Almasi.

Photo of two women using chopsticks by deGital Sennin.

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