Diverse narratives: Can’t speak English? Here are your USA hacks!

President John F. Kennedy once said, “Every aspect of the American economy has profited from the contributions of immigrants.” Secretary Hillary Clinton once also stated, “We are a country where people of all backgrounds, all nations of origin, all languages, all religions, all races, can make a home. America was built by immigrants.”  According to the Migration Policy Institute, the United States admitted nearly 79 million immigrants between 1820 and 2013. In addition, over 8.8 million immigrants arrived in the United States during the peak immigration years of 1900-1915. According to the American Immigration Council Organization, in 2019, 44.9 million immigrants made up 14% of the entire population of the US. By the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2022, the US Department of Homeland Security had used 168,917 of the available working visas. 

Immigration Predictions in the US (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Corporations today demand a high degree of comprehension or mastery of the English language, with 92 percent of global employees reporting that English is essential for their career progression. Around a third of learners in global markets, such as Asia, Europe, and South America, are learning English to apply for a job in their own country. Like it or not, English has emerged as the universal language for conducting business worldwide. Around 1.75 billion people possess adequate English language skills, equating to a quarter of the world’s population.

Leading corporations such as Daimler-Chrysler, Airbus, Microsoft, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia, and SAP have enforced English as the official language of their organizations in Beijing. It’s recommended that any company with global operations or ambitions should follow suit, as noted by Tsedal Neeley, a professor at HBS. Many job postings on LinkedIn explicitly state that candidates must have strong English language skills, including reading, writing, and speaking English fluently.

According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, foreign-born individuals in the US are more likely to be unemployed than native-born individuals. In 2020, the unemployment rate for foreign-born individuals was 9.2%, compared to 7.8% for native-born individuals. A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that foreign students who earned advanced degrees from US universities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields had difficulty finding employment after graduation. The study found that only 44% of these foreign graduates had secured jobs in their fields within six months of graduation. A study conducted in 2017 by the Pew Research Center found that about 20% of US adults speak a language other than English at home and that this group is more likely to report experiencing discrimination or being mistreated. 31% of Hispanic adults who speak Spanish at home reported experiencing discrimination or being treated unfairly, compared to 13% of Hispanic adults who speak English only. In addition, A 2020 survey by the National Education Association found that English language learners (ELLs) in US schools are more likely to feel misunderstood or left out of classroom activities than their native English-speaking peers. The survey found that 62% of ELLs reported feeling misunderstood by their teachers, compared to 39% of non-ELLs. 78.5% of the United States speak English as their native language. Those who don’t are at a disadvantage.

Nearly 25 million Americans are classified as limited English proficient (LEP), meaning they speak English less than what is considered “very well.”  

Einstein was an Immigrant from Germany.
(Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

This is the point where you don’t feel defeated!

Nelson Mandela once said, ‘The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” But how does someone conquer the fear of being misunderstood as a non-native speaker in the United States? I’m here to tell you… or at least give you the skills to be heard with or without knowing a lick of English, here’s my approach: Cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive restructuring is the term used to describe changing your thoughts and feelings about the thing or event you fear. That is what someone who doesn’t speak English should do to thrive economically in the United States. We need to approach the situation differently. Surprisingly, the answer to the question of what the heck we do is not to learn English, per se. Instead, we will dive deep into exactly what you can do if you’re struggling to fit into America, especially if you want to thrive here. Felix Sanchez de la Vega Guzman can still not speak English 40 years later following his move to America. So how did he turn his tortilla business into a 19 million-dollar food manufacturing empire

Always go with what you know.

Large populations of those with foreign backgrounds have moved their businesses into big cities within the US that have immigrant populations large enough to isolate themselves enough not to have to use English. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute in 2015, about 37% of foreign-born individuals in the United States lived in “majority-immigrant” neighborhoods, where at least half of the residents were also foreign-born. As stated by Sanchez himself, The entire market is Hispanic. You don’t need English.” A business deal, he said, is “only a cheap long-distance phone call, […] all in Spanish.”

Seth Daniel, a reporter for Boston’s largest public broadcasting station, discusses how some immigrant households in Boston are striving to preserve their native languages in the face of the pressure to assimilate into English. Author Djofa Tavares stated, “As a teacher in this neighborhood, I see a lot of my students that can’t speak to their grandparents. That’s sad. Right now, there’s a movement to keep the language alive…Some folks have been here for four generations and are now realizing the mistake of not keeping the language.” In Mattapan, Boston’s Mattahunt School, a battle is being fought to preserve the Haitian Kreyol language through the Toussaint L’Ouverture Academy which is the first dual-language Haitian Kreyol-English school in the country. 

In 2010, 4.5 million adults who made significant earnings and were heads of their households spoke English “not well” or “not at all.” About 35,500 of these adults had household incomes of more than $200,000 a year. There are also other ways to hack the system.

Or in other words, fake it till you make it!

Just ask 39-year-old Zhang Yulong. He emigrated from China in 1994, speaking no English, and today presides over a 30-million-a-year cell phone accessory empire with 45 employees. How did he do this, you may ask? As Mr. Zhang stated, “You don’t have to have a big conversation, you can just make gestures.” He also said that his lack of English “has not been a handicap.” Mr Zhang also relied heavily on bilingual staff, and he is not afraid to admit that he isn’t one of them. Zhang rated his comprehension of English at about 30 percent- he spent nearly his entire life in Chinese. But not every single immigrant’s story is going to be like Sanchez and Zhang’s.

What if you come to this country and have no idea where to begin?

As of 2022, there are currently 132,228 hotels and motels in the US, which is 8.3% more than there were in 2021. Hotels host around 1.3 billion guests a year, which is more than 17% of the world’s population. Hotels also support more than 1 in 25 jobs in the US. According to the Magnify School, a hotel management training course, housekeepers must possess certain qualities. This includes working quickly and efficiently, adhering to cleaning standards, being discreet and not invading guests’ privacy, and having a clean and neat appearance— none of those states that the employer must communicate in English.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Art is a universal language, and through it, each nation makes its unique contribution to the culture of mankind.” You do not have to speak English even if you want to be an American artist. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is committed to showcasing the work of artists from diverse backgrounds who speak languages other than English. They offer bilingual programs and labels in Spanish and English. The Queens Museum in New York is also known for its commitment to promoting the work of immigrant artists and often features exhibitions and programs in multiple languages. 

“One should not aim at being possible to understand but at being impossible to misunderstand.” Marcus Fabius Quintilian 

Here are some resources to help! 

  1. Joel Kaplan, a tik-toker who went from not speaking any English to making millions.
  2. Here are the 12 best jobs for people who don’t speak English
  3. A Student’s Struggle to Speak English Leads to a Career as a Communicator
  4. The link between citizenship and English language speaking is weaker than ever, largely by choice.
  5. Free Online Course to help citizens who don’t speak any English
  6. Real Job Listings in New Orleans that don’t require English-speaking
  7. How to Make it in America Series
  8. First Major Database of non-native English



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