I speak English. I speak English only.

by Frank H. Wu

Associate Professor/Supervising Attorney
Howard University Law School Clinical Law Center

( This article was originally distributed by The New York Times Syndicated. )

When I was a child, I learned Mandarin Chinese before I learned American English. But when I went to school, I learned to talk like all the other kids. Thanks to their taunting, and encouraged by my teachers, I learned English so well that I forgot other languages in the process.

On Saturday mornings, my parents brought me to Chinese school. Although I was supposed to learn my ancestral language and culture there, I resented missing the cartoons on television. As a consequence, by being a conformist in my allegiance to English, I also became a rebel who could barely write his name in Chinese characters.

By assimilating, I suppose that my experiences have been typical and not especially traumatic. Losing the language my parents prefer, and lacking the accent that will always mark them, I have been lucky in my later life. Now and then, someone will compliment me on speaking English so well, or ask if my cryptic handwriting consists of Chinese ideograms. Other than that, though, my language skills are more or less unremarkable.

But as I listen to the debate over making English our official language, I wonder what the point might be. The effort to enforce the use of English in speech and writing recalls for me children harassing their schoolmates who are different. People sound as if they are insisting that they or their parents before them were compelled to lose their heritage, so others should be forced through the same shameful process. It is no better than a form of hazing, the last arrival bullying the next newcomer.

As much as I believe that the English only movement is misguided, I am not persuaded by the standard arguments against the legislative proposals. Appropriately enough given the subject, the arguments for both sides seem to be repeated as if learned by rote. People learn English anyway. The government should not legislate language. We should be encouraging people to learn foreign languages, not discouraging them, in order to compete in the international economy.

Instead, I am moved by a different argument that I think would appeal to many people who can speak English, whether as their first language or as a foreign language. Contrary to the stereotypes of taxi drivers and university instructors, the English-only movement has little to do with people who cannot speak English at all. Like real-life cabbies and teaching assistants, the English-only movement has much more to do with people who can speak English in fact, but who do so with an accent or not quite fluently.

I am convinced that we have overlooked the importance of accent whenever I hear people promoting English-only insist they care strictly about the official language and our public discourse. They go to great lengths to say that they have no interest in how people communicate at home and in private. I’d like to take them at their word about that.

So I wonder to myself who these folks are, who literally cannot speak a word of English but manage to interfere with the lives of their English-speaking neighbors. I encounter individuals who speak only a foreign language in the company of family and friends, not as strangers on the street.

I suspect that is true of most of us. We rarely meet people in our daily lives who cannot somehow make themselves understood in English. We do meet, however, many more people in a variety of situations who if they chose can speak English -- but simply with an inflection and cadence that may sound unfamiliar to our ears.

Over time, I have found that I can adjust. I learn to comprehend people with Indian accents, just as I learn to understand people with Southern accents -- with enough patience, even people with an Indian accent blended with a Southern accent.

And I am assimilated so well that I have the same tendency as most Americans to be overly impressed by an English accent, but unimpressed by a Chinese accent. Not all accents are equal, it turns out.

Whether we insist on English, we should be tolerant of accents. Attacking accents hardly improves civility and community.

People can erase their accents only with great difficulty. That doesn’t stop them from trying, of course. Adult accent improvement classes, especially for professionals, have lengthy waiting lists that symbolize the desire to be accepted as an American. Linguists also report that the people with the best pronunciation and grammar are individuals just below the top of the social hierarchy -- not the people at the top, whose sloppiness sets the standards.

Perhaps if people who heard foreigners all around them listened more carefully, they’d learn that they were surrounded by citizens who spoke English after all. We’d all discover that if we first respect one another, then we will be able to communicate with one another.


Author: Frank H. Wu Associate Professor/Supervising Attorney
Howard University Law School Clinical Law Center
2900 Van Ness St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008
202-806-8065 voice 202-806-8436 fax
fwu@law.howard.edu

Copyright Notice: (c) 1997 Frank H. Wu

Posted: November 1997


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