On speaking your own language in public

Recently, the actions of a Duke University professor have been making headlines after she asked the students in her Masters program to remember to speak English while on school facilities. Two unnamed faculty members had complained to her about two students speaking Chinese loudly in a common area. These faculty then asked to see photos of the students in order to identify them and remember them if they ever hoped for an interview or work on a Master’s project. The professor emailed her students about the request and her provision of the photos before warning them of “unintended consequences” of not speaking English.

As with so many of these types of incidents, there is likely a lot more nuance and complexity to the situation than will see the light of day. Needless to say, the professor has been removed from her position. Chinese social media had a variety of responses ranging from rage to bemusement, with one commentator wondering what would happen if foreign students in China were forced to speak Chinese at all times.

Whatever the long term repercussions there might be for the professor, the students, and the unnamed faculty snoops, the story has lessons for us all. For Canadians, we are only decades away from running residential schools where First Nations children were removed from their homes, placed in boarding schools, and systematically discouraged from speaking any home languages, however well-intentioned the system may have been. And if we are quick to condemn (as we should) this kind of approach, we must also acknowledge the sentiment that floats around schools and cities everywhere: why don’t the kids/people speak (insert language).

There are practical reasons to settle on a common language to help get things done. Singapore, Malaysia, and Tanzania all opted for English as a neutral language disconnected from an ethnic group. But language rights, perceived slights, and the tension between linguistic communities can and do flare up into violence and serious conflict, such as in Cameroon between French and English speakers. Language is so integral to our relationships and so deeply connected to our sense of self it’s understandable why we sometimes may feel annoyed or threatened when another party is incomprehensible or not following our wishes or style of communication.

What about our schools?

Students should be encouraged to use a language if that is one of the mediums of instruction or one of the classes offered. And there are two ways to do it. The first is to create rules with sets of consequences for not following through. This can be effective, but it requires a lot of input on the part of the institution and if there is buy-in on the part of the students. I took part in a French immersion program during the summer after my first year of university. It was a five week university credit course subsidized by the Canadian government. We lived with host families, studied in the mornings, and then participated in activities for the rest of the day. The program had a strict three strikes and you’re out rule for speaking English. And it worked to the point where the norm was to speak French when out and about with classmates. But was the program a success because of the rules? Or because of the momentum created by so many people buying in to it with just enough natural pressure from host families, teachers, and workshop leaders? We all knew it was only for five weeks, and the majority (though, not me, I’m proud to say) snuck in all kinds of English when away from preening ears. So the rules and the significant consequences did work, but it wasn’t just the rules that made it happen.

A number of years later, I taught at a high school in Guangzhou, China, where there were posters on the school walls encouraging students to only speak Putonghua, the national language of China. The implied message was students should not speak Cantonese, the large regional dialect spoken in the province and in Hong Kong. Few Cantonese speaking students heeded these rules, but of course they had to use Putonghua to communicate with others and the majority of their teachers. It’s hard enough for university students to speak a different language for five weeks, let alone a group of high school students for years at a time. In fact, it’s almost absurd to speak to someone else in a common language which is weaker for both of you. Across China and other countries where there are many different dialects present, people switch to the language with the highest mutual degrees of comfort – the highest common denominator – and only step down to a less familiar, but more mutually comprehensible one in order to include others. Much of the time the language is a lingua franca. And globally, the lowest common denominator is often English, even if there is often a huge disparity in terms of proficiency between one speaker and another.

So here’s the thing. Languages and language use in schools and other institutions should be organized around fitness for purpose. Too often the focus is on a particular kind of language, a specific accent, that signifies a certain class or sophistication, rather than an ability to think well, identify and solve problems usefully, and communicate to the degree that is necessary. Do I sometimes get annoyed or frustrated when others are not speaking my language well? Yes. Is this frustration unique to English? No, but it’s more ubiquitous because of the privileged position English has enjoyed for the last century or so.

However, as I wrote in the Autumn Spring 2019 issue of International School magazine, the status of English worldwide is changing and the sought after “native-English” accent is being replaced by a greater recognition of the usefulness of bilingualism. What is also changing is the increased frequency that people, particularly from the Anglo West, are coming into contact with speakers of other languages, in other words, the multi-lingual world that is the norm for most of humanity and a good deal of history. A world where people casually describe their proficiency and the circumstances of usage for the different languages they speak, rather than the all-or-nothing language use of monoglots.

For the two students speaking Chinese in the common area at Duke, they may have been too loud, but this conflation of poor manners with a perception that they were not trying hard enough or exercising enough language etiquette is the problematic feature that so many have latched on to. There were no rules prohibiting the speaking of a non-English language in the common area. And so informal rules were hastily set up in order to create real consequences for violators. But just as language is a means to an end, rules are also a means to an end. And just as grammar ought to be seen as one part of the vessel of communication and not its central plank, rules are dull, lifeless, and even wicked things without purpose in and of themselves.

But we need those rules! Don’t we?

There is a myth in schools that kids only need to speak the target language more frequently and they’ll acquire it. Kids brains are amazing, but their brains are still doing a lot of intense work behind the scenes with the support of the child. All language learners need comprehensible input in order for their brains to gradually implant the new information and build on it. There are tons of factors that impact this process. How confident the learner is. The pressures they feel in the learning environment. Their home environment. The social stakes for learning failure. Access to the language. Learning disabilities that might further challenge the acquisition. And on, and on. Once the learner has made it through all that, and is still standing, the learner needs to hang the new information on something. The new language needs to connect to something else. A wonderful metaphor to describe this process comes from Tim Urban on the blog Wait, but Why. He describes knowledge as being like hanging things on a tree. You can’t hang things on that tree unless there are branches to hand them on. You can’t hang something on to nothing.

The second myth that people spread, even if it carries more truth with it, is that the main reason someone doesn’t learn a language is because they’re still surrounded by so many opportunities to speak their own language. Anglos are very quick to bemoan their language abilities or complain that they have few opportunities to learn a language because there is too much English everywhere. I know all of this because I am one! I also can confidently expect a good degree of English communication almost anywhere I travel.

And let me tell you, I would completely concur with the Chinese web commentator I mentioned earlier. Imagine the outrage if Chinese schools actually enforced “Chinese” only rules at schools. Yes, there are immigrants in the West who don’t speak much English, but there are a whole lot more expats around the world, proportionately speaking, who don’t speak other languages. And this is simply because they don’t need to. People generally learn languages to the degree that they need to learn. But if they do need to learn more languages, it takes work. There aren’t too many people who go out of their way to acquire another language if they don’t have a reason to do so. But I will give a special shout-out to Rebecca Cuningham for doing this with her family. She describes these experiences on her blog Fake Flamenco.

The Duke professor should be commended for acknowledging that the students were studying in a foreign language, which is inherently challenging. Forcing the students to speak English at all times within certain school buildings is a rule that can be enforced for periods of time, but it’s not a long term solution. If no rule was actually going to be enforced, official or otherwise, then in reality “speak English” more is just a lot of hot air. And it seems to me at least, that the students may have been too loud. If they had been speaking English loudly to the point of being disruptive, then there would have been little outcry. Perhaps criticizing the students for being noisy might have been an awkward thing to do, but this would be much less illogical and far fairer than associating their behaviour with irrelevant issues of not speaking English enough.

I don’t know all the details of this particular situation, but I’ve seen my fair share of louts. And they come in all shapes, sizes, and languages. I’m likely guilty myself of boorish behavior. It’s only natural to associate perceived poor behavior with language or some other external indicator. That is straight-up tribalism. One solution to deal with behavioural issues is to enforce commonality, through rules, or even a single language. But we’ve seen what nasty consequences can come from that route. Another solution is to put up with one another a little better. Because even if we did speak the same language, we’d just find other ways to emphasize our differences and superiority. This trait, for better or worse, is a significant part of our humanity.

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