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Language Barrier

By March 1, 2014July 30th, 2016Food for Thought
"what we've got here is a failure to communicate" sign

On the 6th of February, fellow classmates and I were given the opportunity to interview immigrant workers from Africa. We gathered our questions, our volunteers, and our vehicles and found ourselves in a large, private room. When the interviewees arrived, they were first spoken to in Somali. One woman, Ndey, seemed to take offense. She asserted that she needed no translator. Later, as I listened to the others speak, I was impressed with their English. Even Mustafe, who has been in the United States only ten months, could understand and respond to us. This made me wonder, how does language impact immigrants’ lives? What exactly is this language barrier issue, and what’s being done about it? What sort of support do immigrants have in learning a very frustrating language?

Communication is one of the most important aspects of human interaction. We require conversation to perform a range of duties throughout our day. For most immigrant workers, their first job will be something that doesn’t ask for skilled English speaking. This leaves room for exploitation, but Abdullahi pointed out that most wouldn’t know because they’re not educated about issues such as health care and break times.

Local economic conditions in Africa have worsened to a point where workers desperately seek foreign jobs to provide for their families and communities. Our interview participants spoke of their move to America as a drop-everything-you’re-doing-and-GO opportunity. I can’t imagine giving up my family and friends, my home, and possibly my education just for a chance at a life in our country. I close my eyes and picture Minnesota from a non-native view. It’s colder than any weather ever encountered, and American English is spoken rapidly with multiple meanings. I would try to better my understanding of the language as quickly as possible. I wish I could claim that race is not the issue as much as language and skill level, but the United States shows an ugly history of mistreated immigrants. From African American slavery beginning in the 1700s, to Chinese building the railways of the 1800s, to Jewish, Italian, Irish, Latino, and Arab, let’s just assume there’s deeper issues than language. However, assimilation by learning the language and culture could be the first step to an integrated life in the USA.

Throughout American history, education has been absolutely essential in helping immigrants gain a foothold in the USA. Access to higher education is critical to helping productive workers and citizens. As Abdullahi pointed out, since education abroad is often not even recognized in the USA, there is little choice if one wants to better their circumstances. There is a gap, though, from the meat-packing plant to the University. Since English is not a strict requirement, it is left up to the individual to further their language skills. People like Mustafe and Dahir are made aware of their opportunities and are organizing slowly to gain better rights. Since most immigrants and refugees arrive with little knowledge of the language that opens opportunities, it only makes sense to provide as much assistance as possible to ease the communication and cultural barriers. The difficulty is that many new immigrants are oblivious to the assistance readily available to them. If temp agencies and meat packing plants (or other appealing entry level jobs) provide better education for workers’ rights and expectations, they will reduce the challenges those workers face. Encouraging English language learning is only one of many hurdles that must be leapt before integrating into this new country. Our generation is receptive and open to change. We’re ready for equal rights. Is the government?

Meredith Davis. Graphic Design Theory. Thames & Hudson, 2012.
Dr. Immanuel Ness. Neoliberal Markets, Migration, and Guest Workers.
Dr. Katherine Fennely. Challenges Facing Immigrant Workers in Minnesota Today.
Dr. Katherine Fennely. English Language Proficiency of Immigrants and Refugees.
Legal Aid. English Language Learners: Your Right to Equal Education.
Mike Fishman. Immigrants and the Economy. FPI (Fiscal Policy Institute).
Minnesota Bankers Association. African Immigrant Research Guide.
Multilingual Minnesota. Heritage Language Support.