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7:50

“Why are they teaching these kids anything but English? They live in America. They should learn to speak English.”

Tears stung as the words found their unintended mark. I looked across the Thanksgiving dinner table at my then-fiancé, who gave me a sympathetic glance, knowing how much those words hurt. I didn’t have the heart to argue, knowing that my words would fall on deaf ears.

I was raised in a midwest town in a midwest state of monocultural, monolingual Caucasian English speakers. Now, the state I grew up in has changed significantly over the last few years with the influx of refugees and immigrants from Asia and the Americas, but the stigma around anything that is “different” is still deeply entrenched, particularly in rural areas where Donald Trump took a sweeping victory in 2016. These areas are filled with people who see refugees and immigrants as threats to their ways of life. Sitting at that dinner table, I found that the beliefs of my extended family hadn’t changed much, even though, ironically, I am an ELL (English Language Learner) teacher. I worked, and still work, with refugees and immigrants.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area has long been known for its large refugee and immigrant population. To be exact, Minnesota has more refugees per capita than any other state. Walk down what the locals call “Eat Street” (otherwise known as Nicolette Ave.) and you’ll get a sense of the wide variety of ethnicities represented: Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Chinese, German, Ecuadorian, Hmong, Malay, Mexican, Thai, Korean — the list goes on and on. Many of these restaurants are run by first, second, or third-generation immigrants. It’s about as traditional as you can get next to going to each individual country.

Sadly, despite the wide range of cultures, there is a thriving sub-culture of monolingual idealism. In the days and weeks leading up to the election in 2016, the tension in the air in the middle school I taught in at that time was palpable. The school had a significant number of Somali refugee students, many of whom were Muslim. We also had a number of Arabic speaking boys from Iraq, who were also Muslim.

The rhetoric during that time was not reserved to adults. Unfortunately, what is said at home by adults has a way of trickling down into the ears of children. Chants of “Build That Wall!” and shouts of “Go back to where you came from!” echoed throughout the halls. Laughter from white American students and unkind words settled into the hearts of my students, and I was left to pick up the pieces. My kids were scared. I was scared. Deportations were up. While many of my students were legal immigrants (being born here as children), their parents were not. The tension many of my students carried on their backs was visible as they looked to me asking what would happen if Donald Trump won, and the day after the election, they came to school anxious and looking for answers. My Muslim students were harassed and bullied. Everything in me ached.

The monolingual lie says that English is the be-all and end-all. It is the language that dictates the success or failure of an individual or family. It says that if people move to the United States, they must shed all of their former life (their culture and language included). I have heard stories of immigrants being told to “speak English!” when standing at line in the grocery store. I have heard tales of Somali women being called terrorists when they have lived and worked in the United States for over 10 years. Some of the stories aren’t even appropriate to share, even on a platform like this one.

These are not isolated incidents. “Minnesota-nice” is not so nice when it comes to refugees and immigrants. I firmly believe a lot of it has to do with the monolingual lie and the white privilege that comes with it.


In 2013, I moved to Wuhan, China. If the monolingual lie is true, I shouldn’t have ever spoken English while I lived there. I should’ve devoted myself to hours of Chinese study, working to learn, read, and excel. Sure, I did practice. I had a tutor, I worked on reading and writing Chinese characters, but by the end of just a couple hours, my brain was exploding. I longed to read and write in something familiar. Being surrounded by sources of input (newspapers, TV, advertisements, and even just people around me on the bus) left me overwhelmed and exhausted. I would often go home and turn on Gilmore Girls or read a book because my brain needed a break. I think my students, along with refugees and immigrants learning English, are often in the same boat.

I think of the Somali women who got yelled at for speaking in Somali while waiting in line at the grocery store, and am reminded of the countless times that I stood in line at grocery stores in China with fellow expats speaking English.

I also often think of the fact that when we choose to travel abroad on vacation — to Spain, France, Mexico or the like — we expect people to be able to speak English. We don’t even attempt to try and learn the local language (even if it’s just ‘please’ or ‘thank you’). We lambast people for not speaking English when they come to the United States (either to visit or to live), but when we go abroad, we‘re easily irritated by those who don’t speak our language. It’s (ironically) really a double standard.


Every day, I walk into school and hear the chatter of children speaking — no, not English — Spanish and Mandarin. I work at a small charter school north of the Twin Cities metro area. The majority of students at this school are not native Spanish or Mandarin speakers, but rather native English speakers. The parents of these students are bucking the trend, seeing the value in their children learning a second language fluently. Some of the students I teach are non-native English speakers who are learning a third or fourth language. In an immersion school, the kids that attend gain confidence to converse in their chosen language and learn to read and write in that language, too. Teaching at this school has given me hope that the monolingual lie hasn’t yet completely pervaded society. There are people who see value in second (or third) languages.

Staff meetings at my school take much longer than at a traditional school. The employee list is filled with difficult-to-pronounce names and represent even more languages than the average American speaks. We often have to repeat or rephrase ideas for our non-native English speaking counterparts. It’s challenging, but there’s such a beauty in the diversity.

Next time you interact with someone who obviously doesn’t speak English as their first language, offer a little grace. Encourage friends and family to consider what they have to give to the community at large. That woman who is standing in line in front of you might be missing her parents who are living back in a country she fled from. That man who is standing in the hot sun picking berries might be trying to support a wife and children. That little boy who is screeching, running down the hall in the mall, might just be learning English as his third or fourth language. Give some grace and recognize that you might just be the only person giving them the space to be who they are and accepting their culture for what it is.