English is a funny language. The words “they’re,” “their,” and “their” are enough to trip up any English scholar. How do you know if you need to use an apostrophe for a world like “bus?” Why does the plural form of “lady” turn into “ladies” when the plural form for “key” only requires an “s” at the end?
And my personal favorite anomaly – if the plural form of mouse is mice, why shouldn’t the plural form of house be “hice?”
The English language is illogical on so many levels that - it is a surprise that someone with no prior knowledge of the language can master it.
My parents came into this country along with the tsunami of Southeast Asian refugees during the late 1970s as a result of the Vietnam War. They came with little money, little support, little knowledge of what a First World country such as America was like at all. They hopped from Santa Barbara, to Tulsa, to Denver, and then finally settled here in Seattle.
My parents didn't know a word of English when they came here. They took advantage of all the chances they could to learn, enrolling in ESL classes offered for people such as them - immigrants or refugees trying to etch out a new life in a strange country. This wasn't your standard English 101 that some spoiled college kid would take - this was English for people who didn't know how to even spell the world "English." This was learning the alphabet from scratch without the benefit of a fun song played through a tape player or 26 dolls that represented each letter. This was learning when to say "Thank you" and "Excuse me" at the right times. This was learning how to write out your address when you had rarely ever used a pencil before.
Over 30 years later, my parents' English is anything but impeccable - but it improved enough to the point where my dad was able to get his AA degree and get a good job at a machinery company. It was enough that my mom can confidently call 1-800 numbers to ask customer service a question about her insurance policy (something that most native English speakers somehow cannot master). And it was enough for my parents to raise three daughters and flesh out a small slice of middle class life for us.
They're light years away from ever completing a doctoral thesis - heck, so am I and I"ll bet most of you are too - but for people who escaped a previous life of Third World poverty and war to tackle a language that makes absolutely zero sense - that, my friends, is pretty damn impressive.
Which is why it pisses me off when right-wing douchebags say that immigrants should learn English or "go back to their country." Listen up, compadre - English is a FUCKING HARD AND NONSENSICAL language. Yes, I get it and you have a fair point - English is the main standard of communication to get anything done in this country, so knowing it is essential, but know what? Proficiency in a language doesn't fucking happen overnight, asshole, and fluency in one takes even longer, if achieved at all.
I volunteer at an ESL class for older Asian immigrants hoping to improve their English as they navigate the intricacies of complex American life - they are pretty much in the beginning stages of where my parents were as they settled into their new lives in 70s and 80s. Sometimes it's frustrating when trying to explain the differences between a noun and an adjective and correcting their sentences written for their elementary-level homework.
"No, Phuong, it's 'AN apple,' not 'A apple."
And while there are definitely students who are slower than most, a good number of my students have clearly come a long way since coming off that plane from Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos.
They can write full-fledged sentences, they can read stories, and a handful have successfully passed their citizenship tests - the Holy Grail of living in this country. Yet, those who have still continue to come to these classes because they genuinely want to learn and get better.
And more often than not, I find myself in situations where I come off as the idiot, having forgotten what a prepositional phrase was and what the differences between simple present, present progressive, and present perfect progressive (seriously, who but the nerdiest of all grammar geeks knows this stuff anyway???)
And if the right cared enough to ask, to actually get to know some of these people, to actually offer their time to help out in an ESL class like I do - they would realize that most, if not all, immigrants who come into this country genuinely want to learn English and be a productive American citizen.
This is America, after all - not all of us speak English, but most of us are learning how to, no matter how painstaking it is. At least show some respect for that.