Bilingual Librarian

During an interview, I was sitting down with a trio of non-librarians who were vetting me as well. They asked about the futures of libraries, about what librarians will need to know in the future. I really don’t remember having this answer prepped, but I had a rather eloquent response nonetheless.

bilingual street signs
By J. N’Demenye – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

I said that librarians needed experience in a second language.

Public and academic librarians – and probably school librarians as well – have patrons whose first languages are not the same as the librarians’. A public library may serve communities who speak Polish or Hmong. School librarians teach children bilingual in Spanish and English. Academic librarians face a growing population of Mandarin speakers attending universities.

I speak French at a respectable level – plenty well enough to have a conversation and conduct business. Of course, I’ve never lived in an area that would require me to use French in order to help a patron. I would have done much better knowing Mandarin, Hindi, or Arabic.

But having the experience of learning a second language, of speaking it was indispensable.

When I encounter a patron who is not a native English speaker, I have some understanding of the challenges they’re facing. I understand they may have rehearsed what they would say. Or that they perceive that I’m processing their accent or grammar (no matter how I try to keep my expression neutral) – and that is uncomfortable. Or that they won’t know every single word I do. (I’ve experienced these all when speaking French.)

I also am used to speaking to non-native English speakers. I have several friends from France and its départements – and have spoken both English and French to them. I have learned that when we don’t understand each other (for whatever reason), we need to explain what we’re talking about in new ways. Not everything translates well; so I have become good at rewording things.

These experiences help me to better serve non-native English speakers in my library work. I will explain in new ways. I will use sentence structures that English learners will recognize more readily. For example, I’m from the Midwest of the United States; a lot of us love prepositions, which even native English speakers from other regions think are nutty. (“Can I go with?”, “What time’s it at?”, etc.) I’m also patient – because I may one day be the non-native francophone trying to puzzle out the language and a problem.

Unfortunately, perhaps because so few librarians are multilingual, I see a lot more frustration with non-native English speakers than I would like. And even being able to understand a few words of your patron’s language – or to mention how you have trouble going to the French pharmacist – can relax a nervous patron. (My 10 words of Mandarin always get laughed at by the Chinese students, so you have to be able to take a joke too.)

So, I think that a second language experience for librarians (which isn’t a new idea, Melvil Dewey recommended it) would be ideal for the future of libraries.



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