In yet another example of anti-Asian bias at American universities, a professor at Duke University sent out an email to all first and second-year students to tell them to use English “100% of the time,” even outside of the classroom in private conversations between themselves.
Professor Megan Neely issued the terse email in response to comments about international students speaking Chinese in the student lounge and other common areas. Just to be clear, the students were not speaking Chinese in any formal classroom or academic setting, they were having a private conversation in a social area, which is their right.
The professor’s email said, ‘Beyond the obvious opportunity to practice and perfect your English, speaking in your native language in the department may give faculty the impression that you are not trying to improve your English skills and that you are not taking this opportunity seriously.” The professor also issued a veiled threat, saying “Continuing this practice may make it harder for you and future international students to get research opportunities while in the program.”
In the email, Professor Neely also said that other faculty members had complained to her about students speaking Chinese in the common areas, and asked to see photos of all first- and second-year students so they could “remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project.” This is a blatant threat to blackball Chinese students who speak their native language among themselves. Such a threat has no place in an academic setting.
The email and resulting discussion imply that the students should speak English exclusively “to work on their language skills.” This is in itself a poor argument – Duke is a prestigious university with rigorous admission, and simply gaining acceptance requires a high level of intelligence and language skills. Chinese students at Duke aren’t there to learn to speak English. They already do so fluently.
Private conversations outside the classroom are just that – private. The students have every right to communicate with one another in whatever language they choose. Not only is it their right, hearing multiple languages at a university or any other setting is part of what it means to be an American. Being an American isn’t about the insistence on uniformity, it’s about inclusiveness. It’s about a “melting pot,” about the opportunity for others to come here for a better life while still preserving their own cultures.
Threatening students who speak their native languages among themselves is abhorrent, and contrary to that America should be. It wasn’t that long ago that in my hometown, in the neighbourhood where my father grew up, Polish was the dominant language. Like most immigrant communities in the United States then and now, people learned to speak English when they needed to do so, but still retained their native cultures and languages, and we should celebrate that. It’s what makes living in America one of the most interesting places in the world to be.
Making America great isn’t about imposing uniformity, it’s about celebrating our differences.
Vive la différence!
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Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.