(American) English as a Second Language
(American) English as a Second Language
(American) English as a Second Language
(American) English as a Second Language

I must admit that I have never paid much attention to immigrants and their challenges here in New York and Brooklyn. Perhaps it is because I am a foreigner myself, living and working in Brooklyn, who has not experienced many challenges so far.

The automatic and unconscious assumption in that case is that others will manage as well. Of course I know better and it is not that simple. Time to take a closer look.

For starters, I didnt even know what the size of the immigrant population in New York is. I looked it up: in New York City as a whole (the five boroughs combined), over a third of the population is foreign born, and this number has been pretty stable lately. Brooklyn shows a similar trend: between 37% and 38% in the past 10 or so years.

If we zoom in on Brooklyn and take a look at central Brooklyn, we see figures very similar to New York City for neighborhoods such as Crown Heights and Bushwick. Looking at Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant, we see lower rates, but still 28% and 20% respectively. Source: CENSUS/ American Community Survey.

Perhaps data on immigration rates in New York is not all that interesting by itself. But I can see how it is such an important topic address if we compare these numbers with a random European country such as The Netherlands (incidentally the country that I am from). One in every ten residents in The Netherlands is foreign born (source: EuroStat).

By the way, although I am a foreigner, living and working in Brooklyn, I am not (yet) part of the immigrate population. I reside here on a non-immigrant visa, which allows me to live and work legally in the United States. This is a temporary arrangement. When my visa expires, I will have to move back to The Netherlands.

So now that we know that immigration is a hot topic for New York and Brooklyn (or should be), I would like to highlight one aspect that immigrants and other foreign born residents (extra terrestrial or not) deal with here: language.

Counting myself now to this group, I would like to come out and share with you that I suffer from an affliction commonly known as ESL or English as a Second Language.

Over the years, I have been ridiculed and made fun off, because I do not always use the correct expressions, I use word that dont exist, and I have a funny accent. Some examples:

Only yesterday I used the expression “not the sharpest tool in the shed incorrectly and said, “not the smartest tool in the shed. Not that bad everyone still gets what I meant. I have also used “scatter-minded instead of “scatter brained.” To me “scatter minded just made more sense. Think about it.

One that I literally translated from Dutch once: “The bird doesnt fall far from its nest instead of “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Some non-existent English words that make sense to the Dutch:

– concludable (adverb)
– kwetter (verb)
– rotspeed (noun)
– party-pig (noun)
– tooth-meat (noun)

Take a stab at the meaning of each of these words and leave them as a reply to this column. Perhaps Ill come up with a price for the most creative among you.

I have also taken advantage of English as a Second Language. For example, I can always feign that I dont understand something and blame it on my ESL disability. Very helpful when dealing with the police, pretending that Im a tourist.

I then explain in broken english that I just didnt understand what a red little man at a zebra crossing meant. However, I would like to give a cautious warning to all immigrants and foreigners not to misuse this prerogative!

For example, this fool at ABCs Bachelor who stated there should never be a gay version of the dating show as to protect children at home. He went on to say a gay leading man would be “too hard to watch” and that gay people are “more pervert in a sense.” He blames his poor English and claims that his words were taken out of context.

It’s not all fun with ESL though. For many, not speaking the primary language of the country you reside in, is a serious obstacle when dealing with day-to-day life.

For example, how to find work if you dont speak English and your family does not own a business. As a side note: there are great free programs out there that support foreigners in learning English. For example, the Brooklyn Adult Learning Center at 475 Nostrand Avenue.

And its not just the language, but also how language relates to culture. The other day I was on line at our local Foodtown and a foreign Caucasian man was speaking to his African American friend and used the words watermelon and fried chicken in the same sentence.

Another African-American man who was standing behind them and overheard the conversation became angry and started an argument with them. It escalated and broke into a fight. Advice to all foreigners across Central Brooklyn: only use watermelon and fried chicken in the same sentence when trying to explain not to use it in the same sentence.

Foreigners and immigrants have to be sensitive to the ways that language relates to culture. This is often difficult to learn and keeps many from integrating locally. Sometimes you will learn the hard way, but often times you are better off by just listening to what is going on around you; by asking in case you dont understand; and by interacting with, being open to, and respecting your neighbors who have been living here for the longest.

And for gods sake, use your common sense!

Disclaimer: any typos and grammatical errors as well as any wording that might be construed as insensitive or insulting are due to my ESL.


Yako and Krystal

Yako: Born on a farm in The Netherlands, Europe, I was always on quest for adventure. As a small boy, I was already interested in learning about other cultures and pretended I was fluent in American (I...

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  1. My first language is Hindi but since long time I’m living passion within me to learn English fluently as a second language. I’ve already migrated with my full family in Chicago and already been taking classes of learning English. It’s an interesting language and I really enjoy watching when native English speakers talks with each other. You just inspired me to speed up my learning process through sharing some motivational notes. Thanks.

  2. I was born and raised in Fresno, California. Around a hundred languages are spoken here, it’s often said it’s the most ethnically diverse area of the state. I now work in the local school system (76 languages in the last 5 years) and English is definitely a minority language in the homes of many of the students.

    I worked for a music store for years and one of the sections I had was the world music. It had hundreds of languages of course but somehow the rest of the employees seem to think I spoke most of them so they sent me all the customers that had thick accents, even if all they wanted the Rolling Stones or Miles Davis.

    I would like to see your words used in a sentence, context is everything. American english is always fertile ground for new slang, your words are only ‘non-existent English’ until enough people use it.

    All you need is one scene in a popular movie using those words and they probably would be widespread within a year.

    Nice column, thanks.

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