A week in France over Christmas set me to thinking about one of America’s white-hot issues—and how we might deepen the dialogue around it.

While traveling through Normandy and Brittany, we encountered few people who were comfortable with English. I speak enough French to get by, so it became my job to order at the deli, buy stamps from the post office, talk to the cellphone people, etc. I adore the language, so this was a labor of love. But it took extraordinary amounts of mental energy to think through my sentences, understand the other person, and respond in kind. 

By the time my head hit the pillow, I was dead exhausted. And that led me to think about immigration.

Imagine you’re a U.S. immigrant whose first language is Spanish. Every day, you expend all that mental energy to navigate a strange language and culture. On top of that, you have to hold down a job, talk with your kids’ teachers, figure out the banking system, etc., etc. You may want to speak English, but learning a language takes years.

All this leads me to three thoughts. First, there’s clearly more to the immigration issue than “if you live here, you have to speak the language.” Whatever the validity of this position, it raises more questions than it answers. Since mastering English is both complex and time-consuming, can the U.S. take steps to accelerate the process among immigrants? How much accommodation should Americans make to other languages? Should government be involved in this? Should business?

All of this can lead to a rich dialogue, bridge building, and perhaps even a direction for policy. But it requires us to eschew bromides like “just speak English” as the beginning and end of the discussion.

Second, my place in this grand debate reminds me of the need for humility and sensitivity. I have my own (ridiculously liberal) opinions about immigration policy, but then I don’t live in a high-immigration region. It’s essential, then, that I honor the opinions of both Anglos and Latinos in the U.S. Southwest—because they live this issue. No matter how much I think that absolutes of social justice are on my side, I cannot be a party to this dialogue unless I commit to hearing others out.

Third is the surpassing value of travel in broadening our perspectives.  When we delve into another culture entirely, we quickly discover an incredible diversity of viewpoints. What seems self-evident to white Anglo Americans might be completely foreign to a South African matriarch, or an aboriginal hunter, or a young hotelier in Normandy. We cannot help but begin to see our personal worldview as one among many. This reorients us to approach others not only with openness, but with empathy.

In my case, I can hold all kinds of theoretical opinions about immigration and language issues. But traveling to France gave me a glimpse of what it really feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. It left me, quite naturally, with more openness, more empathy. And that was just for a week: imagine how much a year in Poland, say, or mission work in the Philippines might have changed me.   

Given the long, angry history of our national immigration debate—which has lasted well over a century—this openness and empathy might be just the thing to move us from debate to dialogue.