Speak American: Teacher’s Rebuke Shows Language Policy Cluelessness

Speak American: Teacher’s Rebuke Shows Language Policy Cluelessness
Laura Greene/The High Point Enterprise via AP
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Dozens of high school students in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, staged a walk-out protest last week in response to an English teacher’s xenophobic remarks to students speaking Spanish to one another. One of the students said that they “were speaking about the Yankees” in their native language, “because that’s how [they] feel more comfortable.” “Military men and women are fighting [who] are not fighting for your right to speak Spanish,” their teacher said. “They’re fighting for your right to speak American.” This is not an isolated incident; earlier this year, a substitute teacher in South Carolina said to a student: "Go back to where you speak Spanish if you don’t want to speak English."

As has been widely covered, nationalist “us first” right-wing movements are gaining ground across the West. This swell of success on the political right emboldens prescriptivist, xenophobic, Anglocentric linguistic behavior of the sort seen in the New Jersey teacher incident. But “English-first” movements are historically, legally and linguistically unsound. For instance, in referring to the U.S. military, the teacher demonstrated an ironic ignorance of the linguistic policies of many of America’s most infamous enemies, which often try to impose common language with threats of legal or physical violence. Repressing native languages has consistently proven to be politically unsustainable and often leads to social unrest, and sometimes to violence.

For example, in Nazi Germany, the principle of linguistic ethnic nationalism was leveraged to bolster Hitler’s twisted vision of race and predetermination. Similarly, ISIS may be carrying out “the deliberate destruction of Aramaic,” the so-called “language of Jesus.” Unsurprisingly, restrictive language policy tends to be associated with repression, violence, fascism and political upheaval. While there are some well-known instances of relatively more successful and peaceful language planning – like in post-1977 Quebec, post-Franco Catalonia, or Ireland in more recent years – these imperfect efforts have in common their emphasis on the availability of educational and civic resources in the target language, as opposed to active repression by a governmental entity. The New Jersey teacher’s remark fell squarely into the category of repressive policy than into the latter category marked by inclusivity and a focus on the availability of resources.

English’s Great (and Growing) Debts to Foreign Languages

The teachers’ comments in these incidents also illustrated misunderstandings about language and how it evolves naturally. Language borrowing, often resulting from immigration, has been a protagonist in English’s storied history. Contact with native speakers of other tongues, like Anglo-Norman French, Late Latin, Old Norse, Scots, French, Arabic, German, Spanish, Guguyimidjir and Mandarin Chinese—whether through immigration, trade, art or otherwise—fueled the development of English’s colorful lexical trove, which we enjoy today.

In fact, the very first language we refer to as a version of something called “English” was the result of the movement of a Germanic people speaking a Germanic language onto the then Celtic-language British Isles. A grand series of lexical, semantic, syntactic and pragmatic changes took place as Germanic and Common Brittonic rubbed up against each other for hundreds of years.

English is especially bastard; most of its vocabulary is borrowed. During the Middle-English period, English and Anglo-Saxon entered into a high-prestige/low-prestige relationship, where high classes spoke a version of French, and lower classes spoke English. (It is quaint to imagine schoolteachers in Norman Britain rebuking students for speaking Middle English amongst themselves, as Britain at the time was as much a French-speaking land as the U.S. today is an English-speaking land.) Norman French’s influence on English is astounding: current estimates for the proportion of English vocabulary that is Romance-based (i.e., French or Latin) are at least in the 50 to 60% range. The template of a high-prestige/low-prestige, diglossic arrangement is by no means novel and is mostly inevitable. In many parts of the United States, English and Spanish are in such a relationship. But it is gravely socially damaging when that relationship is misunderstood or used to insult and repress.

Debates about immigration policy aside, when people with varying native tongues meet due to immigration, transfer of words (and sometimes other language elements) is inevitable. It is a phenomenon as old as language itself, and it depends on social encounters between speakers of what might be considered a land’s native tongue and immigrant speakers of some other language.

We Should Expect Better of Teachers

A teacher should be skilled enough to handle talkative or otherwise insubordinate students without stooping so low as to denigrate their language or heritage. Since she is a teacher of the English language, her dearth of understanding of basic linguistic concepts such as language change and immigration-based lexical borrowing is especially unnerving.

Moreover, when approximately half of the student body at the school reports speaking Spanish at home and only 32 percent report speaking English at home, to assail the students’ use of Spanish is to assail a key part of their identity. Trying to make the students feel that their mastery of the Spanish language is less important than their mastery of the English language is both linguistically outrageous and patently offensive. All languages are created equal. And we should all remember that soldiers are fighting for our right to speak, and in whatever language we want.

Brandon Short studies law and language. He earned his law degree from Columbia University and his undergraduate degree in linguistics and philosophy from Boston College. You can follow him on Twitter @brandonshort4.

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