Do We Correlate Intelligence to Command of the English Language?

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This morning I dropped my son off at Preschool and drove to the store.  I left my sleeping daughter in the van with my sister, and tried not to be too excited for the opportunity to go into the store alone and unencumbered.

All I needed was in the dairy section, but I had to go through the produce section to get there.  On my way, I passed a pleasant-looking Chinese Grandma.  She and I exchanged a smile and a wave, and then she turned back to the store ad she had been studying before.

I almost made it out when something inside me put on the brakes.

I tried to keep “driving” anyway, but I recognized that the feeling I was experiencing was one I had learned to associate with opportunities to do good I was about to miss forever.  I said a little prayer, Am I making this up, or would You really like me to go back and talk to her?  I took  another step forward and felt the pull to go back even stronger.  So, I took a deep breath, and turned back around.

As I approached her this time, she smiled and waved me over.  She showed me the store ad she’d been poring over and started to try to ask me something, mostly with her hands because she only knew a couple of English words.  I smiled.

“Qi shi, wo hui shuo zhong wen,” I said, Actually I can speak Chinese.  She lit up.

“Ni gou li hai!  Hui shuo zhong wen.” she responded, You’re amazing! You can speak Chinese.

Only now as I’m typing this do I remember that I am culturally supposed to deny or deflect any compliment, but I just smiled some more.  She guessed that I must have visited China if I could speak it, which I had, though I spent more time in Taiwan as a missionary… We chatted for a minute before she asked her question again.

It says this item is on sale.  Is that the item I got?  I found these two packages in two different places, but they seem to be the same.  Are they?  And they are beef, right?  It was very important to her that they were beef.  I read the ad and looked at the labels on her beef packages until I was sure she had the right stuff.  And yes, it was definitely beef.

She pointed to my obviously pregnant tummy, “Ji ge yue yao sheng le?” What month are you due?

“Xia ge yue yao sheng,” I replied, I am due next month.

“Wa! Hen kuai lo!” Wow, so soon!  I agreed, and smiled some more.

“Xie xie ni. Zhu fu ni he ni xiao hai zi,” she said, again gesturing at my tummy, Thank you, I wish blessing s for you and your child.

“Xie xie. Zai jian a!” Thank you! Bye!  We parted ways with smiles on our faces and an extra spring in our steps.  I was grateful I had listened to the feelings in my heart and turned back to try to be friendly.  I hadn’t known she needed help, or that she would be so happy to talk to me, but I never would have known if I hadn’t listened.

Afterward, I thought about how difficult it must be for people to live here who aren’t familiar with the language.  I remember traveling through China and commenting to a friend, “Now I know how it feels to be illiterate.”  Words are so essential to our daily lives that we don’t even think about it.  I propose we take  a minute here and think about it:

Do we associate a person’s command of the English language with their intelligence level?

Do we assume that people with disabilities that hinder their speech are less intelligent or less observant than the rest of us?

Do we talk to people who speak with difficulty more loudly or slowly, as if they can’t understand us any better than we can understand them?

I think we all know the answer to all of these questions should be No, but are they?

I hope that we will consider where we stand here, and set a goal to reach out to any who struggle in friendship and love.  Not to patronize or expect to them instantly to mend in response to our attention, but to demonstrate to them – and to ourselves – what they are really worth as a person.

The change in the world we need begins wherever we are.

– Ashley Nance


2 responses to “Do We Correlate Intelligence to Command of the English Language?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this piece for a few different reasons. First of all, how did you learn to speak Chinese so well?!!! I am struggling to speak German fluently (I already understand it fluently) and although I have a natural ability with languages it is proving difficult for me to advance to that level. My husband does not speak English well having come here to America from Berlin 3 years ago. Secondly, it is true that we often treat people who do not speak English as being impaired or defective in some way. I have seen this time and again with my husband when he speaks with someone here and they get louder and slower. This actually seems to increase the difficulty he has in trying to communicate with English speakers because it makes him more anxious when he realizes they are not really understanding him and therefore feels he has failed to effectively communicate which erodes his confidence. Also my niece is severely autistic and cannot speak so people ignore her and treat her like she must be stupid when she is very intelligent and has a wicked sense of humor. We are really preventing ourselves from meeting and interacting with some great people when we fail to challenge these false assumptions.

    • So glad you enjoyed it, schweineloeffel! And thank you for your comment. I have found it is true all over the world, no matter why a person has difficulty communicating. Good luck with your German – never quit! Reading out loud has helped me tremendously, and of course practicing. Rooting for your husband too – moving to a foreign country is a huge leap of faith. I hope you’re both successful at learning your second language!

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