Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

Sounding Off

We hear it all the time—the sound of the English language caught in a paranoid frenzy. It’s that disgruntled muttering from the old man in the supermarket as he suspiciously eyes a Latina woman speaking with her daughter in Spanish. It’s the angry ‘Speak English or get out!’ from the stranger on the sidewalk who fearfully strides away from a Syrian family speaking Arabic. It’s the shocked, angry gasps of two Duke professors overhearing some young graduate students chatting in Chinese.

Yes, it seems a group of Duke graduate students has committed the grave sin of speaking Chinese in public, without regard for the sensitive, monolingual ears of the English speakers around them, thereby placing their careers and their futures in peril. This is how it was communicated by Duke Professor Megan Neely, anyway.

Neely, director of the biostatistics masters program at Duke University School of Medicine sent out an email to her class two weeks ago urging her international students to keep the “unintended consequences” of speaking Chinese in the research buildings in mind. In this email, she explains that she was approached by two other professors who demanded to know the names of some students they had observed speaking Chinese “loudly” in the student lounge. The professors wanted to be sure they had the names of these egregious offenders in case the students sought work or research positions with them in the future.

Professor Neely was promptly asked to step down from her role as director, and Duke issued an apology for her email and, presumably, the sentiment it represents, but the issue presents an important question: why, for so many Americans, does the sound of another language being spoken invoke such anger?

About 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English, according to a 2017 US Census survey, and about 3.4 million of those multilingual Americans speak Chinese. With so much of the country speaking a second or even third language at home, one would think the average English-speaking American would, at the very least, have learned to push the sounds of languages they don’t understand to the background of their mind and go about their day.

Many of us have witnessed the opposite—those crusaders of the English language who just need to say something. ‘Crusaders’ is the only word I can think of to describe them because that’s exactly what they’re doing: they’re fighting foreign tongues as if the country has swooped into an ‘English versus…’ situation where only one language can come out on top. This, I believe, stems from fear.

Where the fear comes from, I’m not as sure, but it’s clear to me that these supermarket vigilantes are acting on some deep-seated nightmare vision in which English is destroyed or degraded somehow by others casually speaking different languages. To some, a mere sentence of Spanish or Chinese spoken privately is not perfectly acceptable social behavior protected by the first amendment at all, but amounts to trampling the American flag. Too many people see the speaking of another language as defiance, even rejection, of the English language and of American values.

Allow me to cite, for my argument, the nation of Canada. Canadians have been speaking both French and English for centuries now, and their country has not yet burned to the ground. One language has not risen out of the ashes with the severed head of the other and declared itself the victor. This is not the situation we’re in. China, as well, boasts several dialects living in harmony.

Lately, it seems the fear of other languages is forming a dangerous mixture with fear of Asian students in the world of academia. Many accredited universities like Harvard and Yale have come under fire for allegedly discriminating against Asian students in their admissions processes, and day-to-day rhetoric is filled with frets that “Asians are taking over.” Even the American government demonstrated mistrust against specifically Chinese students when they mulled over the possibility of restricting access of American research labs to Chinese nationals after they feared China had infiltrated a Duke laboratory and stolen information.

This growing resentment and suspicion of Asian students combined with America’s already allergic reaction to hearing other languages has formed a toxic revulsion to Chinese and other Asian languages among far too many English-speakers. Close-minded Americans see things like the fact that many international students are from Asian countries and jump to the conclusion that they are here to compete, to take over, to destroy. The ever-present Crusaders begin to sharpen their swords for battle.

To these unnecessary gladiators, I can only suggest that you pause and take some time to have some conversations. Talk to the Chinese students before you march over to their professors and demand to know their names. I hope one day we can begin to move towards being a country where intolerance and ignorance are more offensive than the sound of Chinese words, but apparently we aren’t there yet.

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