Campus Politics and the English Language

Peter A. Coclanis calls attention to another form of  “unearned” privilege that many people in academe benefit from greatly yet usually take for granted: fluency in the English language.

June 5, 2018

While I was in Nanjing, China, recently for an academic conference, the host institution graciously provided me with a driver to and from the airport. A bright, engaging Chinese graduate student accompanied the driver, and, although his English was still coming along, we tried to converse in the car. Trying to make conversation, I asked the student at one point if he ever got to Shanghai, about two hours away by bullet train.

He seemed to understand my question, and he responded by saying “not a lot.” When I asked why not, he thought for a bit, then replied, somewhat haltingly, “There, the step of life too many.” I nodded knowingly, but at first had trouble deciphering what he meant. After a half minute or so, I understood what he was getting at -- in Shanghai, the pace of life was too quick. I had learned earlier that he was from a village in Hunan Province, and, although the population of Nanjing is over eight million, the population in the city core of Shanghai is more than three times larger, making for a far different urban experience. Bottom line: language training may be getting better and translation software more sophisticated, but idioms are still tough.

Anyway, the student’s comment about the “step of life” being “too many” got me thinking about language, particularly about the English language and my relative facility in it. I’m an academic, and using and manipulating language is my stock in trade. Indeed, because I’ve worked at a research university for nearly 35 years, I’ve long labored under publish-or-perish protocols, so writing perforce has constituted an everyday part of my work life. I realize that, by now, cynics reading this piece are probably questioning the relationship I’m implying between academics and facility in English, but, hold on a bit longer, because it’s about to get even worse. I’m going to introduce the concept of privilege into the essay, although I promise to use the word as a noun rather than as a hideous, even frightful verb.

Let me start by pointing out that on those relatively rare occasions on campuses today when our increasingly dumb -- as in speechless -- students look up from their purportedly smartphones in order to converse, the word “privilege” is frequently heard. That word is used as a noun most of the time, usually following an adjective or noun used adjectivally, with words such as “white,” “elite,” “male” and “heterosexual” predominating, but with constructions such as “middle-class” and “able-bodied” common as well. White privilege is probably the construction used most, but students also mutter about male privilege and middle-class privilege or, simply, class privilege, at regular intervals.

I am a middle-class, heterosexual, old yet able-bodied white male, so it is commonly assumed on university campuses that people like me constitute the embodiment of unearned “intersectional” privilege. As a result, things said or written by “pale males” like me are often qualified and sometimes even disqualified ex ante. To be sure, the sources of “unearned” privilege that I purportedly embody once possessed a good deal of explanatory power and retain some even today. Most relatively objective observers, however, would grant that such power has been considerably reduced on college campuses in recent decades and, in some cases, completely reversed. That is to say, in an increasing number of academic settings, being a middle-class, heterosexual, old yet able-bodied white male can actually be a hindrance or handicap.

That said, despite my general unease with “privilege creep,” I would like to call attention here to yet another form of “unearned” privilege -- fluency in the English language -- from which I myself benefit greatly. More specifically, the fact that I am a native speaker of English has almost literally meant the world to me.

At this late date, it’s hardly news that English rules, dominating the worlds of science, business, academe, tourism and travel, and diplomacy -- not to mention the internet, where English-content sites prevail. Having succeeded erstwhile “universalist” languages such as Latin and French, English reigns supreme, with only Mandarin a threat to supersede it going forward.

So how does this “unearned” privilege positively affect an academic like me? Let me count the ways. I work in English and have easy access to much of the world’s most important research. I submit articles written in my native language to the leading publishers and publication venues in the world, most of which are in English. I am readily available to the world’s most influential media companies for instant analysis. When I travel internationally, informational messaging and signage are custom fit, and almost anywhere I go -- and I travel a lot -- I can find an English speaker to ease my way.

Linguists are well aware of the strangeness, even weirdness of English, and I can only imagine how agonizing is the process by which nonnative speakers learn to communicate well in it. Yet many do, via a variety of means. Almost every academic in the United States can come up with interesting and insightful examples in this regard.

One of my personal favorites involves an IT professional who was formerly employed at my university. When he migrated to America from China in the mid-1980s, he knew no English and got by at first by washing dishes in a local Chinese restaurant. Desperate to learn English, he went through the usual language-training books and watched American TV. But what helped most, he subsequently told me, were the free private tutorials he received every Saturday afternoon from two very nice older women who would visit his apartment and spend several hours conversing with him. This drill went on for some time, and when it ended, his English had improved a lot -- enough so that he finally had realized that the two women, Jehovah’s witnesses, had not only been talking about religion but also trying to recruit him!

The experiences of two of my frequent academic collaborators are also revealing. One, an Indian economist, was born into a Gujarati family in India in 1954, moving to the British crown colony of Singapore shortly thereafter. His native language was Gujarati, but he later learned English and Malay in Singapore, eventually earning a Ph.D. in economics in the United States. Today he is a well-known petroleum economist, whose strong, brilliantly analytical English prose appears not only in scholarly and trade publications but also in newspapers and magazines around the world.

My second example is powerfully revealing as well. This collaborator (another economist) was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest in 1944. After surviving the horrors of World War II and the Iron Curtain, his family fled Hungary with the collapse of the revolution there in 1956, eventually settling in Chicago. My later collaborator was then 12 and, upon arrival, knew not a word of English. Chicago (my hometown) has never been known for coddling anyone -- certainly not in the mid-1950s -- and my friend, upon entering public school, was plunked down in the first grade with students half his age. As he became more adept in English, he gradually caught up, spending time with third graders, then fifth graders, before eventually resettling with students his own age.

By his own account, however, his English remained rudimentary through high school and college. It was only in graduate school -- largely through years of painstaking work on his own -- that he finally began to achieve real mastery of English, which he has subsequently demonstrated in spades. After earning two doctorate degrees from the University of Chicago -- one in history, the other in economics -- he went on to a highly distinguished career in academe.

Those stories are meant to be illustrative, not unique. I could have spun out several more, and any academic in this country could do so as well. Moreover, had I the time and space, I could have included a discussion of luminaries such as Conrad, Nabokov and Achebe, as well as more recent writers such as Eva Hoffman and Aleksandar Hemon, whose dazzling English prose belies the fact that English is not their native tongue. I shan’t, though, for the principal takeaway from the stories I spun, indeed, from this whole exercise, is not that some people are so gifted as to kill it in a language other than that into which they were born. Rather, the point is that all of us born with English have a powerful “unearned” privilege in academe, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.


Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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