If you live in America, and don't speak English, are you at risk?

April 30, 2017



I'm not one to demand that if you live in this country, you have to speak English, but if you don't, you can put yourself into some awkward situations, maybe more than awkward.


I just left to to do a quick errand. There was an out-of-state car by the road creeping around, stopping, starting, stopping again. When I came back 10 minutes later, that car was stopped at our driveway. Hmmm. Are they stuffing things into mailboxes? Lost? Looking for a particular house?


I drove up next to the car. There was a couple in the car. They looked at me, but didn't roll down the window. I signaled to roll it down. I asked if they needed help. Nothing. Lost? Nothing. Said it slower, tried to use hand gestures. They talked to each other in Russian. A Russian family lives on this street. I asked if they live here, pointing up and down the street. Nothing. I tried some more questions, but got "yes" as an answer to questions that yes or no was not the appropriate response.


Finally, I backed the car away. They creeped down the street, stopping and starting. They finally went around the corner, but I could see they had stopped there. I'm not normally suspicious. We see newspapers delivered and such, but it was the combination of this behavior, the out-of-state plates and the language barrier that made me stop to watch.


I ended up following them around the block (it's a circle) and took pics of the license plate. The police here encourage calling if there is suspicious behavior. I called.


I was on the phone when they stopped at that house where the Russian family lives. She got out and went inside. He got in the driver seat and parked the car.


I explained to the officer on the phone that it appears he is teaching her how to drive. Of course, the officer came to make sure all was okay.


When I saw the car in their driveway, I went to explain, to apologize. The police officer was on the phone with the homeowners. The couple in the car was unable to explain to the police officer who they were and why they were there. They needed to call a relative to explain. Fortunately, the officer was polite and kind to them and it was quickly resolved.


The point here is that they were not doing anything wrong, but their mutual inability to respond to questions put to them in a difficult situation. In a post 9/11 world, at a time when "foreigner" can be perceived by some as not belonging, this may not be safe.


The couple are apparently relatives of the family who lives here. They have PA plates on their car, so perhaps that's where they live. Assuming they live in a community where they don't need to speak English, they are still at risk when they leave that community.


What's even more unfortunate, they did not understand the apology I offered. How do they feel? Do they feel angry? frustrated? harassed? unwelcome? afraid? I don't know. I thought about using a language app to write an apology, but my gut says that I may only increase their discomfort and I don't want to do that.


Does an American need to speak English? #FoodForThought


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