Linguistic Chauvinism Condemned

Genevieve Finn examines two incidents of influential Americans demanding English be used by speakers of Asian languages which have sparked widespread criticism

In late January, Duke University professor and head of the School of Medicine’s Master of Biostatistics program Megan Neely sent an email to students entitled, “Something to think about,” in which she asked them to “commit to using English 100% of the time.”

Neely wrote that two other professors had approached her complaining that Chinese students were “being impolite” by having conversations in a common area not everyone could understand. Neely wrote that these professors had asked to see photos of the program’s students so they could remember them if they ever applied for future internships or work with them.

“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building,” the email cautioned.

Neely later apologized and stepped down from her post after facing public backlash.

Just over a week later, author Barbara Ehrenreich faced similar outrage over a string of tweets she posted about the Japanese cleaning guru Marie Kondo.

Ehrehreich is an author and activist who has written widely for decades about issues of social justice, philosophy, and feminism. Kondo is a recent pop culture sensation because of her Netflix show, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” in which she uses a translator to communicate from her native Japanese to English.

“I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English,” Ehrenreich wrote in a now-deleted tweet.

Twitter users responded with accusations of racism. After an attempt to clarify that only worsened the situation, Ehrenreich apologized, saying her “attempts at subtle humor just don’t work.” The Twittersphere remained unplacated.

Both incidents bring up questions about the policing of language and whether the perception of some foreign languages as threatening by white Americans may be connected to race.

3 COMMENTS

  1. There is a real question here about the use of English as a common language. I send many students abroad from Japan each year. They are all looking for an English immersion environment in which to study. Upon their return I have heard many complaints / comments from students about the lack of opportunity to use English. So this is not about a teacher forcing a racist agenda. There are many students from many countries in Asia who speak many other Asian languages who all want to use English studying abroad.

  2. This situation pales in comparison to what people are living through in Quebec, Canada. The government has taken this perceived threat into legislation and there are regulations in force to punish people who don’t speak French 100% of time.

  3. About finding an English immersion environment. You should tell your participants to be more active in seeking out people to practice with. You can’t sit around in the common area and hope to catch English from other people’s conversations. Take the initiative and invite people for a chat. Set up some sort of mentorship program in your school.

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