Speak Softly… or at Least Speak English

Policing international students’ speech and threatening them with discrimination for speaking their own language is abhorrent, writes Susan D. Blum.

January 30, 2019
 
 
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What language must people speak publicly? Is there a rule -- overt, implicit -- about the ways to speak?

Linguistic anthropologists have long studied the ideologies that govern responses to others’ ways of talking -- what we call language ideologies. We’ve seen them at play when border patrol agents asked to see U.S. citizens’ identification papers in Montana because they spoke Spanish at a convenience store, or when a racist rant over Arabic speakers in a Dallas Macy’s store went viral.

Over the weekend, we got another glimpse of how they can reveal themselves -- in this case on an elite college campus. What happened was Chinese students at Duke University were observed talking together, allegedly “very loudly,” in a lounge. Two faculty members approached the director of graduate studies for their master’s program, biostatistics, to identify the students so they could be schooled about the better way to talk.

In English. Softly. Available to all who might overhear.

Warning that the students' future prospects could be limited if they failed to devote themselves to working on their English, the faculty members also said that the students should speak so “everyone on the floor could understand.” In response, the director of graduate studies, Megan Neely, sent an email to first- and second-year graduate students encouraging them to “commit to using English 100 percent of the time” when they are in public places. She has since been removed from her administrative role, although she apparently remains a faculty member. Meanwhile, an online petition is being circulated at Duke calling for a “full-scale investigation” and for Duke to release a report with the findings of that investigation.

Whatever further fallout occurs at Duke, the incident is a reminder that the public sphere in the United States is an unfriendly place to speakers of languages other than English. Indeed, what occurred is a terrible but not surprising development. In the United States, our “monoglot ‘standard’ language ideology,” to cite University of Chicago professor Michael Silverstein’s memorable phrase -- the “common-sense” notion that everyone should speak English at all times, rather than intimidate English speakers, or make people feel that there's some kind of plot to do malevolent things, insidious things -- is enduring.

At the turn of the 20th century, it was the Germans who were suspected of not belonging entirely to the United States, of not being “loyal.” Many states legally outlawed the use and teaching of German until such laws were deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1919, in the Meyer v. Nebraska case. (Does this account for our current pathetic ability to actually learn foreign languages? The Modern Language Association just released a study that reported colleges and universities lost 651 foreign language programs in colleges over the past three years.) English-only legislation and anti-bilingual education bills are frequently proposed, usually with Spanish seen as the undesirable element to be contained.

While it isn't news that the United States is inhospitable to speakers of other languages and people of nondominant backgrounds, the particular example at Duke is an egregious one because the students were speaking to themselves in a quasi-private setting. Whether we need to speak so whatever we say is accessible to whoever might overhear us is a fascinating question, too.

But China has been singled out recently as a kind of enemy, so the context in this case is relevant. About a third of international students in the U.S. are from China. Nearly all of them pay their own way, with no discounts for in-state tuition or, usually, financial aid. Given the Trump administration’s targeting of China on several fronts (a trade war, accusations of espionage, visa reductions), the number of those students, however, is falling. That has been causing some consternation among colleges and universities that have come to rely on this infusion of tuition.

American higher education institutions want the money of their full-paying Asian students but not their entire selves, which is an immoral position to take. As a white anthropologist who focuses in part on China, I have been privy myself to many conversations about Chinese students in particular. Colleagues accuse them of voluntary isolation and unwillingness to jump into American life. Many science faculty members express irritation because their grad students don't “assimilate” to the broader culture. This is a common complaint. Asian students are often singled out for their separateness.

In fact, Asian students have had particular stereotypes directed against them for decades. Donald L. Rubin and colleagues demonstrated in 1992, in a series of classic studies, that even fully native speakers of English may be assumed to have “a heavy accent” if they look Asian. They tested the comprehension of undergraduate subjects listening to a native English speaker’s recorded lecture. As the students listened, they were shown two different images, allegedly of the speaker. When the image was of an Asian-looking teaching assistant, their comprehension was lower than when they looked at a white person, even though the recording was identical.

I don’t know the facts about the Duke case other than what I’ve read. But I do wonder. Even the claim that the students were speaking “loudly” may reflect not so much an assessment of the decibel level as a comparison to what would be “appropriate” -- which is to be unheard, silent.

Threatening students with discrimination for speaking their own language is abhorrent. And, unfortunately, the current case is just another in a long line of difficulties that linguistic anthropologists and social psychologists have sadly detailed over the course of the centuries. Perhaps it's a teaching moment -- a teaching moment for faculty members who have a responsibility not only to not impose their own prejudices but also to inform themselves about the realities of multilingual speakers in our multilingual, multicultural, multitalented world.

Being able to speak multiple languages will soon be a skill only of people born outside the United States or of children of immigrants -- both categories that we as a nation seem intent to limit. But since one world language is not on the horizon, we will continue to need multilingual speakers. This is not the way to foster it.

Exploiting students and humiliating them for who they are is also wrong. Colleges and universities must do much more to recognize and confront their own habits of denigrating students, no matter how well intentioned the advice appears to those who give it.

Bio

Susan D. Blum is professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

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