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.