A while back, I had come across the Your in America bot. The bot locates instances of people tweeting complaints about immigrants and tourists in the United States not speaking English, where the tweets contain the grammatically incorrect phrase “your in America” (as explained here, it should be “you’re”).
The typical lesson that I suspect many people would draw from this is that the tweets are ironic: the authors of the tweets themselves don’t demonstrate good knowledge of English. Some might argue that such tweets demonstrate hypocrisy. I suspect that many people will look at these tweets and chuckle at their moral superiority to what they would consider the unsophisticated nativist right, a phenomenon I discussed here. While there’s some legitimacy to such a feeling of moral superiority, I think it’s not the main lesson to draw.
As I discussed in an earlier post, true tolerance, and true empathy, extend to the concerns of people who find the consequences of migration deeply unsettling. The people authoring the “Your in America” tweets are unsettled by an aspect of migration — the way it brings them in contact with people who are speaking a language they don’t understand — and this can be personally unsettling as well as impose business and operational costs. As such, this concern does not deserve to be mocked.
I draw two main lessons:
- Language proficiency has many levels, and different levels are necessary for different roles and goals
- Contempt and suspicion for outgroups is universal — but let’s not make it the basis of coercive policy
#1: Language proficiency has many levels
Familiarity with a language is not a binary feature. Different people need different levels of comfort with various languages. As an active blogger and writer who uses the English language quite extensively, I certainly need to be aware not merely of the distinction between your and you’re, but also subtler distinctions such as the distinction between the noun and verb forms of affect and effect. As somebody who deals with code and data and numbers in my day job and my side projects, I need to be fast at arithmetic operations and numerical estimation to a level most people don’t. On the other hand, I don’t need to be proficient at talking with a specific accent for maximum comprehensibility to a particular crowd. Nor do I need to have skill at giving great extempore speeches, because my work, side projects, and personal life don’t require such skills.
Those who say “your in America, learn to speak English!” do know English. They know English well enough to send out a tweet that makes some sense, even if it’s not grammatically perfect. Most likely, their day job and their personal interests don’t require a higher level of familiarity with the subtleties of the English language. This is fine — what matters is that they are good at their chosen job. Their failure to remember formal elementary or middle school grammar is neither here nor there.
Similarly, for many immigrants and tourists, the choice to not learn to speak the local language fluently may be the most rational choice given their goals and circumstances. First off, it’s hard to learn a new language fluently as an adult, and immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, have a lot of things to worry about (such as finding a job while navigating the risk of deportation). Moreover, many of them have support structures that allow them to survive well through a very basic functioning knowledge of the local language. For instance, many of the Chinese immmigrants to the United States who enter unlawfully look for jobs in Chinatown’s kitchen network, where the need for English langauge familiarity is minimal. Similarly, if you’re an agricultural day laborer, you just need to know enough of the local language to understand the overall instructions — and even that requirement is mitigated by the presence of bilingual intermediaries who can work as supervisors.
I grew up in Delhi, the capital of India, where Hindi is the most common vernacular language. I pursued my undergraduate studies in Chennai, a city in South India where the vernacular is Tamil (my undergraduate education was purely in English, as is typical for post-secondary education in India). I tried mastering enough of the local language to be able to communicate in shops and restaurants, and I felt that spending more effort learning the language didn’t pass a cost-benefit analysis (I would have invested more if I had been confident I would stay in Chennai much longer). My refusal to learn the local language better was somewhat frustrating to me, and possibly both frustrating and offensive to some of the locals I met, though I did try to show that I was making a sincere effort to learn the local language. Similarly, for a two-month stay in Paris, I mastered a small set of French phrases and tried to get by with those. Again, I tried not to be openly offensive — I’d start out trying to use French phrases and then switch to English if the other person seemed willing to accept that — but I probably offended and irritated a number of people inadvertently. I can empathize with the frustrations of people who can’t understand the stuff those around them are saying in a foreign language, while also understanding that for many immigrants and tourists it’s simply not realistic to spend too many of one’s resources mastering the local language.
[For a more detailed treatment, see my co-blogger Nathan’s blog post on the linguistic externalities of open borders.]
#2: Contempt and suspicion for outgroups is universal — but let’s not make it the basis of coercive policy
Another important lesson is that contempt is a human universal. While much of the concern behind the “Your in America” tweets is driven by genuine difficulty communicating and understanding across linguistic barriers, some of the tweeters are expressing their superiority over, and contempt for, the non-English-speaking migrants. Similarly, the more linguistically sophisticated people can express their moral superiority by chuckling at the linguistic incompetence and hypocrisy of the tweeters. And some might argue that my blog post is my own way of expressing contempt for these linguistically sophisticated people’s smug self-satisfaction.
It’s not uncommon for people on the East Coast to express contempt for what they consider the backward ways of the Bible Belt, just as it’s not uncommon for people in Texas or Arizona to speak with contempt of the backward ways of migrants. There is some mutual contempt between Americans and Canadians, between the British and the French, and between many many other ethnic, national, and racial groups. In some cases, this contempt is grounded in legitimate concerns. In other cases, it’s grounded in essentially contestable moral differences. And often it’s just plain old in-group bias.
Ultimately, I think the way to move forward is not to try to definitively vanquish or substantially reduce these attitudes, but rather, to create a strong presumption against the use of coercive methods to enforce such preferences (cf. my post on tolerance and the libertarian case for open borders). That, I think, is a goal that can reasonably be accomplished in the medium term. As I discussed in my post on South-South migration and the “natural state”, the history of migration has combined a fair degree of freedom of movement with openly intolerant and prejudiced attitudes (see also my speculation on why immigration to the US was freer in the 19th century, or John Lee’s post on the similarities between current attitudes to Hispanic immigration and attitudes to past waves of migration). I agree that we should also critique the ugliest manifestations of intolerance and contempt. I’d like to push for a world where people openly argue and debate how certain approaches are better than others, rather than snidely belittling others. But this isn’t a simple switch, since it counters deeply ingrained human instincts. In that sense, I both agree and disagree with the view put forth in this interesting article on Ferguson, immigration, and ‘us vs them’.
I discussed some of the ideas of this post in an Open Borders Action Group post.