Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
A friend of mine has a strong passion for languages. She is fluent in several tongues and is now learning French. She has an interesting observation: learning a different language can uncover new layers of life which you may not have previously known existed.
For example, we all sometimes feel something that is happening to us right now has happened before. But for people who only speak Chinese, the feeling is fluid and elusive because there is no phrase for it. Only when we learn the phrase déjà vu - of French origin but more often used in English - do we start to pay more attention to this sensation.
Not everyone has such a poetic expectation of foreign languages. But it is certainly the case that language plays an indispensable role in helping us better understand others and the world.
Immigrants who live in a foreign country know this better than anyone else. For most immigrants, life in a foreign country begins with a language course. Many take the classes as a stepping stone to a broader world.
But the longer I live in the US, the more I suspect that the importance of learning English has been largely exaggerated by native speakers who expect immigrants to do the same, and many times, by immigrants themselves. I raise my eyebrows especially when I hear people say, adopting a Chinese saying, that in the US, without speaking English, "You cannot move an inch."
"Cannot move an inch?" That is at least literally wrong in New York City now. The city announced last week that an English proficiency test that had been mandated for years for taxi drivers has been abandoned. For the more than 80 percent of the 40,000 taxi drivers in New York City who are foreign born, the new policy enables them to move as far as they want by driving a taxi, no matter whether they speak English or not.
The city said this was only fair for taxi drivers as it keeps them abreast with competitor Uber, which doesn't require its drivers to take an English test. It is in line with New York City's long-time attitude to accommodating immigrants. After all, this is a city where government agencies are required to provide translation and interpretation services to those who don't know English, thanks to an executive order in 2003. Mind you, London is going in the opposite direction. It has decided to require all hire drivers, including Uber drivers, to pass an English test starting October 1.
The new policy in New York has its critics. Some people question how the drivers understand where the passengers want to go if they don't speak English. Some worry that in the case of an emergency, the passengers will find it difficult to communicate with their drivers, and the drivers with emergency services.
But if you often take a taxi in New York you'll know. Many drivers, despite having passed the language test, are still not able to communicate well. Most of the times even those with poor English can take you to your destination uneventfully. And sometimes those who speak fluent English and are equipped with GPS can still send you to the wrong place.
This is just like any other service industry in the city. Food vendors, dry cleaners, baby sitters, home attendants, none are required to take English tests. Yet they manage to deliver their services smoothly most of the time. In Chinatown, many people started their businesses in restaurants, shops or even setting up interstate bus services when they were non English-speaking new immigrants. Decades later, they still don't speak English well but they've made their businesses big. All of these make the "cannot move an inch" assertion sounds like an excuse for having failed in the challenges that one is indeed able to overcome.
But of course, those who made the assertion are not looking at moving only "an inch." These tend to be more educated people who have bigger dreams than simply making ends meet. They want to move further and be assimilated and accepted by this society.
It is true English proficiency is largely considered a barometer for assimilation in this country. Every now and then, some shops in the center of the country or the south stir controversy by requiring customers to speak English only.
Earlier this year, a frozen custard shop in Wisconsin was grilled for requiring employees to speak to customers in English only. And in June, an employee at a Dunkin Donuts shop in Queens, New York, insisted a Chinese customer make an order in perfect English before he would serve her. The employee was later fired.
This can leave an impression that one won't get respect in the US until you speak English well. But that is a myth too.
Quite a few members in New York City Council speak heavily accented English, yet it didn't stop them from being elected and allowed to serve their constituents - often well. And then think about the American-born Chinese who speak perfect English but are still told to "go back to their own country."
Discrimination doesn't care whether you are trying to assimilate or not. It's not based on such reasoning.The author is a New York-based journalist. email@example.com