There is a total of 7,102 distinct languages spoken around the world, according to the 2015 edition of Ethnologue. English is only one of these languages, and it is no more beautiful or significant than any of those other 7,101 languages.
Still, there is an attitude in America that everyone in the country needs to speak English. Otherwise, they are somehow not worthy to live here. This attitude is toxic, and so pervasive that I’ve actually witnessed it at Truman State.
A few years ago, I lived down the hall from two foreign exchange students. We’ll call them Student A and Student B, and they were best friends.
Now, Student A was a very friendly person — he loved the culture on campus and was involved in a ridiculous number of extracurriculars. Student B, by proxy, was involved in the same number of activities but was very shy, didn’t talk much and almost never spoke English outside of the classroom. Enter Student C, a St. Louis guy born and raised. Student C really enjoyed hanging out with Student A, and even though Student B stood there every day, side by side with Student A, Student C eventually became angry, turned to me and said, “He’s not even trying. If he won’t speak in English to the rest of us, then [Student B] should have never come here in the first place.”
The mindset behind his words — the “speak English or go away” attitude — still bothers me. Now, there is a general expectation for all foreign exchange students, including American students who study abroad, to know the native language of the country they study in. This is only because students who struggle with the language most likely will struggle with their studies, even if the program is taught in English, and will have a hard time with social interactions as well. However, anyone who has tried to learn a second language is well aware of how difficult the process can be, and most students who study abroad are not going to be experts in their host country’s language. In fact, many students decide to study abroad so they can study the language itself.
Studying abroad gives students more exposure to the language they want to learn, but this experience also can be nerve-wracking because the environment in the classroom is very different from the outside world. In the classroom, the teacher asks you a question or gives you a prompt, and you respond. For the most part, it’s simple. In the real world, conversations can jump from one point to another in the blink of an eye, and there are a million different cultural rules in play at any given moment. So students need to worry about understanding the people around them, processing what they hear and quickly producing a response. At the same time, they have to be careful not to offend anyone or sound like a fool.
Those anxieties are exactly why people such as Student B usually have no problem within classroom walls, but tend to be a little quieter during social situations. They’re not purposefully being rude, and it certainly isn’t for lack of trying. Almost no one is as confident in their second language as they are in their first, so naturally, many people don’t speak nearly as much in that second language as they normally would in their first. For someone such as Student B, who naturally has a quieter disposition, the effect is much more noticeable. Still, Student B was involved in a number of activities filled with people he could only somewhat understand, and he did speak when he was comfortable doing so.
When Student C made his comment, he unfairly judged Student B. On top of that, there was absolutely no reason why Student B shouldn’t have come to the United States. He wanted to study abroad, so he did. A lot of people don’t even have the chance to study abroad, and it certainly wasn’t as though Student B was insulting people left and right. So why the harsh words? Well, there are a number of answers.
The first is how uncomfortable people become when they can’t understand the people around them. For all they know, people are insulting them to their face. This, of course, is nothing more than paranoia and represents a seriously self-centered world view. Heaven forbid people speak comfortably in their native tongue rather than cater to the few people who don’t understand them.
The second, and possibly the most important, answer is the fact that foreign exchange students are not the only ones affected by the “speak English” mentality. This country receives a vast number of immigrants from a large variety of cultures.
Many of them don’t speak English and will rely on those around them to translate, especially for the first year or so. So often, the fact that those people don’t speak English makes them a target for the regrettably strong xenophobic presence in America. People claim to be practical, stating life is simply easier when everyone speaks the same language. While this does present itself as a valid argument, how does deciding who deserves to live in this great country solely on the language they speak sound at all practical?
Personally, I think it’s amazing how I can walk to class during the morning and be exposed to a variety of languages I would have never been exposed to anywhere else during my life. We have a fantastic group of international students at Truman, and they should not be judged by the languages they do or don’t speak. No one should be judged this way. After all, America is the great melting pot of cultures, and that includes languages. It’s time we, as a country, stop forcing the rest of the world to cater to our English-speaking demands.
Holly Fisher is a senior English and linguistics major from Elizabethtown, Ky.