By Sue Dicker
Language and Power
A foundation of democracy is the freedom to express one’s opinions openly, recognized in the United States in the First Amendment of the Constitution. However, the right to use one’s native language is a more subtle point and, in this country and others, not widely acknowledged.
Internationally, the right to use the language of one’s homeland and heritage has been recognized by major institutions. The United Nations, for example, proclaimed 2008 as the Year of Languages, recognizing the importance of language diversity and the threat it faces:
Languages, with their complex implications for unity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression – valuable resources for ensuring a better future are also lost. (International Year of Languages 2008; Boldface in the original)
This document encourages member nations to enact policies “allowing each speaker community to use its mother tongue in private and public domains of language use and enabling the speakers to learn and use additional languages.” The initiatives suggested by the document are bi- and multilingual education and culture-centered projects. Bi- and multilingual education are terms encompassing various approaches that use students’ heritage languages as well as English. The goals are good academic outcomes and, depending on the student makeup of the program, either bilingualism (for non-English dominant students or all students) or English proficiency only (for non-English dominant students). Culture-centered projects encourage speaker communities to develop media and arts programs – for example, theater, music, and radio and TV projects – using their languages. The hope is that such steps will counter the weight of majority languages that globalization brings to minority communities.
In the context of world history, globalization has had a broad effect on local cultures, threatening not only languages, as the UN statement points out. Just as the need for local languages decreases, putting their existence in peril, we are seeing the disappearance of local ecosystems: plants, animals and natural habitats. In the case of languages, however, globalization is just one source of peril that minority tongues have faced. There are other reasons why languages have become endangered, reaching back into history. Language diversity within nations was the inevitable result of the creation of nations to begin with, as world leaders drew up artificial borders, encompassing within one entity multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual populations. Under colonization, dominating powers invaded large parts of the world, taking control of indigenous populations and elevating the value of the colonizers’ languages over the languages of the colonized. The constant processes of migration also added, and still add, to language endangerment.
With so much linguistic and cultural diversity in nations, there has to be a way for the dominant party to establish and maintain control. This party has to convince the non-dominant population of its superiority, either in race, ethnicity, culture or language, or a combination of these. As linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas explains, overt references to race or ethnicity are no longer politically correct means of establishing superiority. Language and culture have become the “defining criteria and as the basis for hierarchization” (Skutnabb- Kangas 1990: 11). She explains:
In order to legitimate assimilation, the dominant population, its language and culture have to be seen as superior and the dominated ones as inferior. This is a civilizing mission to glorify the dominant and degrade the dominated. In addition, the relationship between groups has to be rationalized, always to the advantage of the dominant group, which is seen as doing the dominated a favor. (Skutnabb-Kangas 1990: 17)
The more powerful sector of society encourages members of the less powerful groups to believe that if they work as hard as they can, they will be able to join those who are privileged. The less powerful are encouraged to take on the outward appearance – in dress, behavior and language – of the more powerful. In some cases, this is possible. In the United States, since the traditionally dominant class has always been white and of European descent, immigrants from northern Europe, and especially their descendants, were and still are able to do this, if they are willing to hide or reject what ties them to their past: by dressing and behaving like the dominant group, speaking only English, and changing their “foreign”-sounding names. Others may not be able to, since the physical features of first-generation immigrants and indigenous populations are passed on to those after them, making later generations appear distinct and “other.”
The Adaptation of Native-Language Groups to U.S. Society, and The Dominance of Anglo-Conformity
The transformation of a member of the non-powerful into a member of the powerful group is one-way immigrants and other marginal groups can adapt to the larger society. This is assimilation, the cultural transmission process, which usually goes in one direction, with non-dominant groups conforming to the culture of the dominant group. Anglo-conformity is assimilation as applied to Anglo-Saxon-dominated nations. In the United States, it is “the desirability of maintaining English institutions (as modified by the American Revolution), the English language, and English-cultural patterns as dominant and standard in American life” (Gordon 1964: 88).
An example of the pressure of Anglo-conformity on minorities is found in the nineteenth century U.S. policy of placing Native American children in government-run boarding schools. In the semi-autobiographical novel of Alexie Sherman, a teacher tells one of his former students:
We were supposed to kill the Indian and save the child…I didn’t really kill Indians. We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren’t trying to kill the Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture. (Sherman 2007: 35)
The result of this policy is well-known: Native Americans didn’t belong anywhere. While they were taught to dress, speak and behave like white Americans, their physical features still set them apart. In cities where they mixed with whites, they were discriminated against. If they went back to their reservations, they also didn’t fit in, having given up their languages and cultures.
Later, similar tactics were used on European immigrant children in public schools:
The main fuel for the American melting pot was shame. The immigrants were best instructed on how to repulse themselves: millions of people were taught to be ashamed of their own faces, their family names, their parents and grandparents, and their class patterns, histories, and life outlooks. This shame had incredible power to make us learn, especially coupled with hope, the other main energy source of the melting pot – hope about becoming modern, about becoming secure, about escaping wars and depressions of the old country, and about being equal with the Americans. (Greenbaum 1974: 431).
Being different from those in power meant being inferior and unworthy of the resource’s others enjoyed. In this process of immigrant adaptation, the already-powerful kept their place unchallenged.
Assimilation is one of several means of immigrant and minority adaptation to the world they inhabit. Two others are beneficial to the non-powerful, but have not been widely accepted. The early twentieth century philosopher Horace Kallen promoted pluralism, a
democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously…The common language of the commonwealth, the language of its great traditions, would be English, but each nationality would have for its emotional and involuntary life its own peculiar dialect or speech, its own individual and inevitable esthetic and intellectual forms. (Kallen 1924: 124
Pluralism benefits the non-dominant, and is supported by liberals. At times, conservatives may give it lip service, usually for self-interested ends; for example, candidates for political office often try to attract votes by attending ethnic festivals, sampling ethnic food and speaking briefly to an audience in the group’s language. This particular vision of a multilingual America has had shifting support over the years; during times of peace and stability, there is greater support for pluralism, but when the country faces war or other threats from outside, people of certain nationalities, cultures, and languages are deemed suspicious.
The trajectory of the German language in U.S. history is an example. German flourished in the late eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century in states with large populations of German-speakers: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado. Pennsylvania state law allowed schools to use German, or German and English, as the language(s) of instruction. However, the late nineteenth century saw support for the German language wane. This accelerated with America’s entrance into World War I, as German came to symbolize the language of the enemy. State and local governments passed laws criminalizing the use of the language in public and private places; the use of German and other languages as languages of instruction and as subjects of instruction was prohibited. This ended only in a 1923 Supreme Court decision prohibiting states from banning foreign language instruction (Kloss 1977).
A final means of adaptation, mentioned previously, is what is popularly called the melting pot. The term was first used by Michael-Guillame-Jean de Crevecoeur, an eighteenth-century Norman nobleman who traveled across America and spent time living as a farmer in upstate New York. His letters sent home, which became famous, include this passage:
He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced…Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. (de Crevecoeur 1904: 54-55)
Despite de Crevecoeur’s optimistic view of the future, a melting pot never took place in America. A melting pot would require intermarriage among all people over a period long enough to erase all signs of ethnic or racial distinction, an unlikely prospect. The early colonizers of America were mostly from northern and western Europe. Because these groups shared characteristics, intermarriage was common, creating a limited, biological melting pot. However, other groups – Native Americans and African Americans, as well as later immigrants from other parts of the world – were less likely to be invited into this pot.
What occurred in traits other than biology was different. The largest group of settlers was English Protestant, and other groups gravitated toward this group’s religion, culture and language. This was not a process of melting but of Anglo-conformity. The English language gained a prominence that has never been challenged. Still, the image of the melting pot maintains a strong appeal. For conservatives, looking back to a mythical melting-pot era in arguing against pluralism is a common exercise. The noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. writes:
The vision of America as melted into one people prevailed through most of the two centuries of the history of the United States. But the twentieth century has brought forth a new and opposing vision…A cult of ethnicity has arisen both among non-Anglo whites and among non-white minorities, to denounce the idea of a melting pot, to challenge the concept of “one people,” and to protect, promote and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities. (Schlesinger 1992: 14-15)
Schlesinger envisions the melting pot as something that other people, “non-Anglo whites and…non-white minorities,” are expected to jump into but instead are resisting, fighting the true course of American history. He doesn’t identify what groups are joining the pot, creating an unclear vision of what the melting pot is. In addition, we find out that he doesn’t really support this process. When discussing the education of Hispanic children, he points to the supposed failure of bilingual programs:
Bilingualism has not worked out as planned: rather the contrary. Testimony is mixed, but indications are that bilingual education retards rather than expedites the movement of Hispanic children into the English-speaking world. Bilingualism shuts doors. It nourishes self-ghettoization…Using some language other than English dooms people to second-class citizenship in American society…Monolingual education opens doors to a larger world. (Schlesinger 1992: 108-109)
Schlesinger views the goal of educating Hispanic children as moving them into “the English-speaking world,” a world in conformity with mainstream norms. In contrast, a true melting pot would create a new, “American language,” to be spoken by “one people.” That’s clearly not Schlesinger’s vision, one in which the English language maintains its dominance. Schlesinger shares with many others a confusion of two terms: They refer to the melting pot when they actually mean assimilation.
In addition, Schlesinger muddles his argument by claiming that bilingualism is bad for children, while monolingual education opens doors. It’s surprising that an intellectual of his stature would confuse the meanings of these two words. One suspects that he mis-defines bilingualism as “knowing only Spanish,” which would indeed limit children. Knowing only one language, even if it’s English, is never as good as knowing two or more. In addition, it would be interesting to know how Schlesinger would apply his definitions to people of his own circle. It’s likely that his academic colleagues benefit by being able to read texts written by people in their disciplines in several languages, as well as being able to travel the world and converse with the people they meet.
In the 1980s, Anglo-conformity gained steam from a movement to make English the official language of the United States, something the founding fathers discussed but ultimately felt was unnecessary. The major proponent of such legislation is U.S. English, an organization founded in 1983 by Senator S.I. Hayakawa of California. The current chairman is Mauro E. Mujica, a Chilean immigrant who proudly states, “While English was not my first language, I am perfectly bilingual today. Learning English was never an option nor was it something to which I objected or feared. It was required for success if I wanted to enjoy a prosperous life in the United States” (U.S. English 2016). Mujica seems to distinguish himself from some other, unidentified immigrants, who apparently do see learning English as an option, who object to or fear it, or who fail to think of it as a requirement for success.
For proponents of English as the official language, any government program that makes use of languages other than English is looked at with suspicion. Although there are many types of bilingual programs, U.S. English sees bilingual education as one entity, and as a failure. The results of a long-term study of bilingual education, it claims, are “(1) There is no evidence that a program of native language instruction has greater benefits than any other type of education program, and (2) Teaching children to read in English first, instead of in their native tongue, has no negative consequences” (US English, Inc. 2016). These statements do not reflect the conclusions of decades of academic research. In addition, true to the dictates of Anglo-conformity, the organization sees the ultimate goal of educating immigrant children as the acquisition of English, not the acquisition of bilingualism (despite Mujica’s own pride in being bilingual) or the overall achievement of academic success.
Proposed legislation to make English the official national language, supported by U.S. English, has never moved through Congress successfully, although thirty-two states have official-English laws of their own. The current congressional proposal is H.R. 997, the English Language Unity Act of 2017. Its purpose is to limit the language of official acts of the federal government to English. Exceptions are made for common-sense purposes and to avoid conflict with other laws: foreign-language education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the preservation of Native American languages, national security, international relations, tourism, commerce, public health and safety, the Census, the criminal justice system, and “terms of art or phrases from languages other than English” (H.R. 997 – The English Language Unity Act of 2017 2017-2018).
If there are so many exceptions, a legitimate question is why there is a need for the law to begin with. U.S. English finds the current use of multilingualism by the government too expensive. However, the multilingual services it points to actually fall under the exceptions in H.R. 97. Also, missing from its discussion is the difficulty for many immigrants of acquiring more than a rudimentary ability to speak English, and the obstacles posed by a lack of formal education, the cost of classes, the time needed for taking classes and/or the accessibility of such classes. Limiting government services to English would hardly eliminate the obstacles faced by newcomers wanting to learn English. What the proponents of official English fail to see is that Anglo-conformity dominates U.S. society today. English is not, in fact, in any danger.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” – In What Language?
The official-English movement has gained little ground in the last three decades. However, the dominance of English over all other languages is the backdrop of everyday life in America. From time to time, this assumption is tested, and hackles are raised, when another language appears to encroach on the territory assumed to belong to English. One such occasion came about in the spring of 2006, as the country waited for Senate hearings on immigration reform to resume after a hiatus. Several Latino groups prepared for a day of pro-immigration rallies in cities across the nation. Music producer Adam Kidron released “Nuestro Himno” (Our Hymn”), a Spanish-language version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung by several popular Latino artists, written especially for the rallies. The song received a lot of airtime on Spanish-language radio programs. Another version of the song, with English lyrics added, was planned for an album called “Somos Americanos” (“We are Americans”), part of whose profits would go to a Washington-based pro-immigration coalition (Spanish “Star-Spangled Banner” Draws Ire 2006).
The use of a translation of the national anthem into another language began to take on symbolic meanings never intended by its producer or singers. Mark Kidron of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank supporting tighter immigration controls, asked, “Would the French accept people singing La Marseillaise in English as a sign of French patriotism? Of course, not (Spanish “Star-Spangled Banner” Draws Ire 2006). When then-President George W. Bush was asked to comment, he said, “I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English. And I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English, and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English” (Baker 2006).
The messages become clear. Singing the anthem in English is patriotic; singing it in Spanish is unpatriotic. President Bush adds to this the suggestion that singers of the Spanish version don’t know English, are not able to sing the song in English, and/or are not worthy of being citizens. He fails to acknowledge the fact that some people who were going to be at the rally, attended by immigrants and non-immigrant supporters, were able to sing the song in both languages, but would choose to sing it in Spanish on this occasion to make a point.
The hypocrisy of Bush’s statement was evident. As a resident and former governor of Texas, Bush often used Spanish in public appearances in front of Mexican-American audiences. At the 2000 Republican National Convention, where he was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate, his bilingual nephew gave a speech in Spanish. According to Star-Spangled Hypocrite (2006), during Bush’s first presidential campaign he often went to Hispanic festivals and joined in singing a Spanish-language version of the “Banner;” his 2001 inaugural ceremony featured a bilingual version by Jon Secada. As noted earlier, conservatives may pay lip service to pluralism to attract voters who might not otherwise vote for them. Alternatively, showing support for Anglo-conformity may serve to shore up a politician’s support from the conservative wing of his/her party.
The Spanish-language version of the anthem received support as well. The song is based on a poem written during the War of 1812, and some people acknowledged that its evolution was inevitable. When asked to respond to President Bush’s remarks, Condoleeza Rice, then-Secretary of State and an accomplished pianist, said, “I’ve heard the national anthem done in rap versions, country versions, classical versions. The individualization of the American national anthem is quite underway” (Baker 2006). Sanneh (2006) recalls that the 1960s rock star Jimi Hendrix’s version, “with guitar pyrotechnics echoing the battlefield pyrotechnics, was once seen as a provocation; now it’s often treated as an exuberant expression of patriotism.”
“Nuestro Himno” is a version of the anthem intended to fit new circumstances. Like the original, it calls for the defense of the nation and refers to the flag as a symbol of freedom. In addition, the song includes a call for brotherhood and equality; “my people” are urged to fight and “break the chains” (A Spanish Version of the Star-Spangled Banner 2006), a call for immigrants to fight for their rights. Sanneh (2006) regards the song as an expression of both political activism and cultural pride. The producer Adam Kidron insisted that the song was never meant to usurp the traditional version, but merely to suit the occasion of the day of rallies.
Interestingly, some ten years later America’s attention is again directed to a conflict between those who see the anthem as a sacred symbol of patriotism and those who wish to use the playing of the anthem to call attention to injustice in the country. In August 2017 Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, sat during the playing of the anthem before a game. He explained two days later that his act was intended to show support for oppressed people, in particular to bring attention to the ways minorities are treated in this country. In the following months, fellow players and team owners joined in, as they moved from sitting to kneeling down or linking arms during the anthem (Sandritter 2017). Once again, the song took on a meaning beyond its traditional significance, as Kaepernick and his supporters tried to shake Americans out of their complacency and face up to the inequities of society. And, once again, their decision to make such a stand was met by criticism from some sectors of society, including the president of the nation.
Native Languages in New York City
Residents of New York City, a historically immigrant-rich urban center, often face challenges to their right to use their native language. The city’s Commission on Human Rights recently began a campaign urging residents to come forward with their experiences of discrimination. It began a subway poster campaign featuring models of various ethnicities and nationalities, male and female, with a text beginning “I SHOULD HAVE THE RIGHT.” The text of each poster ends differently, focusing on the rights to be safe, to rent an apartment, to maintain one’s heritage, to display signs of one’s faith, and to get a job. In one poster, a photo of a man is accompanied by the words “I SHOULD HAVE THE RIGHT to speak to my kids in Spanish, without someone telling me to speak English.” Text at the bottom of the poster informs people that “YOU DO HAVE THE RIGHT. If you have been a victim of discrimination based on your immigration status or heritage, we can help” (Italics and Boldface in the original). A telephone number and a web site are offered.
Lauren Elfant, the commission’s senior policy counsel, explains that the office has noted an increase in people reporting negative comments, at work and on the streets, regarding the characteristics that make them different from others. The poster regarding the right to speak one’s language was a response to a number of complaints received by her office, as well as a situation encountered by a staff member outside the building where the commission is located. Some responses to the poster come from community-based organizations and some from individuals; some contact Elfant’s office just to thank the commission for its work.
Staff members of the city’s Commission on Human Rights evaluate each response. If there is a possible violation of a city or federal law, the person is asked if he/she wants to file a complaint; if yes, the commission begins an investigation. If there is no law being violated, or the complainant doesn’t want to sue, the commission can act in other ways. If residents of a particular community regularly encounter remarks from other residents, the commission offers to host a meeting between those making the offensive comments and those receiving them, often with the help of a faith-based group in the community, in an effort to mitigate the tension in the neighborhood. In addition, the commission gathers data on all the complaints it receives (personal communication with Lauren Elfant, August 9, 2017).
Further evidence that speaking languages other than English in public spaces elicits negative reactions was collected by the author of this article in a study of New York City bilinguals. This author created an on-line survey on the use of native or heritage languages at home and in public spaces. For this survey, both a native language and a heritage language are languages other than English; the subjects’ second language is English, making them bilingual. A native language is the language someone uses while growing up in a non-English speaking country; the person learns English later, perhaps at school as a foreign language or after immigrating to the U.S. A heritage language is also acquired while growing up; at the same time, the person may begin learning English at home from T.V. or older siblings. In this case, English is the major language spoken in the country, and the language of instruction, or one of the languages of instruction, when the subjects start school. People who speak a heritage language are born in the U.S.
The survey was first put on line for subjects who are bilingual English-Spanish and English-Chinese New Yorkers; this survey was live from 2010 to 2012. A second survey sought to draw in a wider set of respondents, anyone who had a heritage or native language in addition to English. This was live from 2013 to 2015. There were 168 responses to the survey.
I searched for possible respondents through social media. For the first survey, the media sites chosen were directed at English-Spanish and English-Chinese bilinguals; for the second survey, the net was cast more broadly. I sent notices containing the link to New York City museums (such as El Museo del Barrio and the Museum of Chinese in America), organizations that advance the study of nationality groups (such as the Asia Society), and associations that advance the well-being of nationality groups (such as the Korean Cultural Service New York). Universities in the city received notices, including CUNY. Some were directed at institutes (such as the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute at City College and the Caribbean Research Center at Medgar Evers College). Others were sent to student clubs that had social media sites; all city colleges and universities with significant numbers of students from countries outside the U.S., or who identify closely with their families’ nationalities, have clubs organized by these students. Respondents gave no information about themselves that could identify them.
Two of the questions in the survey are relevant to this discussion. The subjects were asked if they had been in a situation in which someone near them had reacted negatively to their use of their native or heritage language. If they answered yes, they were given space to explain how often this had happened, to describe a typical situation, and to explain how they reacted. Of the total number of subjects, 68, or 40%, responded positively. All but four offered explanations of these experiences. Four subjects and their responses will be discussed here. All subjects’ names are fictitious.
Anna is in her late twenties and was born in Ukraine. She considers Ukrainian and Hungarian as her native languages. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn. Here she discusses what happens when she speaks Ukrainian in public:
Sometimes, people think I’m Russian and I can read on their faces discontent. But I understand them, not everybody likes Russians. When I’m trying to explain that it’s a different culture, country, and language they still think I’m Russian which is a bit insulting for me a specially now, with the situation between my country and Russia.
Rose is in her early twenties. She doesn’t give her country of birth, but indicates that she was born outside the United States. Her native language is Spanish. She lives in Manhattan. She writes:
When I was in high school, during a class, I was speaking Spanish to my Spanish speaking friends and the professor heard me. He felt the need to tell me that we live in a country where English is the official language and that I was not permitted to speak Spanish, at least during his class.
Martha is in her mid-thirties. She was born in the United States and lives in Sheepshead Bay. She writes:
It happened recently. About 45 days ago. It started with me closely witnessing someone else’s problem (she was seated in front of me) with someone else speaking Spanish during my bus ride home from work one evening. In protest the Spanish speakers (myself included) riding the bus started to speak Spanish. Majority ruled. She shut her mouth, everyone smiled and soon after she exited the bus. We did not have to say anything to her, she got the message.
Finally, there is Karen. She is in her mid-twenties, was born in the United States and lives in Brooklyn. She writes:
Happens all the time. From being a child in elementary school to going through college and perhaps even on the street, in elevators, anywhere really. People tend to remark “immigrant,” or something similar. However, when I switch to English and speak in a proficiency that these racist people cannot themselves, match, they just shut up.
One hilarious time that I remembered was that I spoke Chinese in the Chinese community at a Chinese restaurant to order food. The woman behind the counter, Chinese herself, gave me not only a bad look but replied to me rudely. She inquired if I even know what order I’m specifying, in a very rude manner. She was kind to the woman right after me, who spoke to her in English. Then, I got a call on my cellphone and picked it up, speaking English over the phone to a friend, she immediately treated me well and for whatever strange reason, decided to speak to me in broken English when I in fact, speak Cantonese w/out any accent and she herself, was able to speak Cantonese fluently. Not only did I never go there again, I encourage other Chinese Americans who are proud of their heritage to not be patrons to such a restaurant either. Good example of how a typical Asian American has to deal with hate from non-Asians as well as Western-white-washed Asians who believe English and Whites are better than Non-English languages and Non-Whites.
These subjects were chosen because they represent the diversity of the respondents to the survey: both U.S.-born and foreign-born and speakers of different languages. (Male respondents were rare, and their narratives in response to this question were not as compelling.) The respondents explain their perspectives on why they received negative comments; these explanations reflect the previously-discussed sources of antagonism towards the use of languages other than English in public places.
For Anna, language has changed from being a means of personal identification to a being a symbol of a country she believes Americans view unfavorably. The geopolitics happening halfway around the world has come to her new home. This situation has parallels to the previously-discussed restrictions on the German language during World War I.
Anna answered the survey in March 2014; at this time Russia was making incursions into Ukraine, a move widely criticized by the United States (Edging Closer to War 2014). This causes a complex and frustrating situation for her; not only does she sense people’s antagonism when she speaks, but she perceives people confusing the Ukrainian language she speaks with Russian. Ironically, she is identified with Russia even though, as a Ukrainian, she thinks of herself as a victim of Russian aggression.
In Rose’s story, we see the point of view of her high school teacher as he tries to legitimate English as superior to the other languages he hears about him, maybe among the many immigrant languages he hears around him in his school, much as Tove Skuttnab-Kangas explains. We don’t know if he has been influenced by the official-English movement, but he believes English to be the legally official language of the country. This is why, he tells Rose, she can’t speak Spanish in class. He also claims that he has the right to limit the language used in his classroom to English. He is misguided in both of these assertions.
In Rose’s case, she has no way of responding other to obey her teacher, as he obviously has authority in the classroom. However, in other narratives, the person complaining about the use of a non-English language does not have authority over the person using that language, allowing the speaker to retaliate. We see this in Martha’s narrative. Here, the person complaining about a fellow bus-rider’s use of Spanish is up against a strong force: all the other Spanish-speakers on the bus. Martha doesn’t explain exactly how this happens, but it appears that these riders get the message to speak Spanish, and the language takes over the bus. No more is heard from the complainant. This story speaks to the ubiquity of Spanish, and of other non-English languages heard in New York (More Foreign-Born Immigrants Live in NYC Than There are People in Chicago 2013; updated 2017).
Finally, and in a similar vein, we come to Karen’s narrative. Here as well, the complainant is not in a position of authority. Added to this is the fact that she speaks the same language as Karen, Cantonese. We don’t know why the restaurant worker reacts to Karen’s use of Cantonese as she does, but other narratives of this type collected by this survey show that this is not an isolated situation. Because her attitude toward Karen improves when she hears her speak English, it may be that at first the employee looks down on her because she thinks Karen doesn’t know English. This may be something the employee values, since she insists on using her struggling English despite the fact that they both know Cantonese. In any case, Karen interprets her response as the restaurant employee’s acceptance of the need for Anglo-conformity. Karen is critical of this, and responds pro-actively, as the bus-riders do. She can’t retaliate against the worker, but she can retaliate, rightly or wrongly, against the restaurant, by urging other Chinese Americans to boycott it.
In twenty-first century New York City, and the nation, language and power interact in complex ways. It is illegal to discriminate against immigrants and their descendants, and the native and heritage languages of New Yorkers are not officially banned. In many respects, these groups have a more comfortable life than their counterparts in centuries past. However, there are times when the traits that make some New Yorkers appear outside “the norm,” including the language they use, make those who don’t possess these traits uncomfortable, and this discomfort may lead to distasteful comments. If we are the targets of such comments, or if we witness them, we may have a choice to make in whether or how to respond.
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