Op-Ed: We don’t all speak American…

By Tyler Vining – Managing Editor

I have the great pleasure of going to school on the most diverse campus in the South. We usually measure diversity through race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, but strangely never in language. On my way from the parking deck to C Building or the Student Center, I can hear a variety of languages spoken among students or to people over the phone. From the usual Korean or Spanish you hear in Gwinnett County to the rare and beautiful sounds of Jamaican Patois, Amharic, Arabic, or the occasional Slavic language, the students speak their native tongues with either great pride out loud or in whispered telephone calls to their parents.

This is not diversity you can see, but one you can hear. Growing up multiracial, I heard Vietnamese every single day when I lived with my grandparents in Jacksonville, Florida. My granny would mutter it under her breath, yell it over the phone, and interpret it for her friends and clients. I, unfortunately, never had the opportunity to learn it. In the past, schools would encourage immigrant families to only speak English at home, thus figuratively cutting the tongue out of my mother’s mouth and leaving her and myself lacking the language. This left me bitterly explaining my whole life why I didn’t speak “Asian” or “Chinese” to ignorant people. It exacerbated my disconnect not only to Vietnamese people and culture but to parts of my family as well. But why does it matter? After all, I’ve heard many Americans say, “Everyone speaks English anyway.”

The problem is that we don’t all speak Enlgish. According to Ethnologue in 2015, only 380 million out of 7 billion people speak English as native language. 510 million speak it as a second language, leaving 890 million speaking English, which is less than 1/7 of the world’s population. Clearly then,, not everyone speaks English. However, there are a lot of people who want that to happen, which frightens me. I, for one, love linguistic diversity. Languages are the vehicle through which you explore existence. Different languages come with different ideals and ways of seeing the world. When someone says they want to eliminate or do away with every language but one, and in turn every way of thinking but one, the fear of linguistic supremacy is not far behind. So what do people really think when it comes to others speaking languages other than English?

I decided to perform a mini–albeit unscientific–experiment. I took the time to speak Spanish either over the phone or in person and looked for people’s reactions. To be clear, Spanish is not my native language; I am not Hispanic and I am in no way attempting to be representative of the Hispanic community or their experiences, but it was the foreign language I felt most comfortable speaking for this experiment (I also speak French and a little bit of rusty Japanese). I wanted to see if my hypothesis was correct that monolingual Anglophones would react negatively when they heard me speaking Spanish to a friend on campus and in Gwinnett.

I’ve had previous experiences where people reacted negatively, so I expected the trend to continue and I was mostly correct. In one trial, I asked a friend if he had eaten already on campus and a person in the room rolled their eyes. Another time, I was speaking over the phone at self-checkout at Wal-Mart, I hung up before finishing and the clerk overseeing self-checkout said “Adios” so discourteously that I bit my tongue and walked away (this is my third experience like this while speaking Spanish that an employee has reacted negatively at Wal-Mart). The third experiment: I was speaking to a friend in person and we had switched from Spanish to English. Halfway through the English conversation, we asked a third friend a question (in English) to which they crudely responded that they didn’t speak Spanish.

The fourth experiment, I decided to change it up and I posted a picture on my Snapchat story and captioned it with “We’re going to the mountain!” in Japanese because I was going to hike up Stone Mountain. The statement wasn’t sent to anyone, but two people replied, asking me to speak English and what I said in Chinese. Although these experiments were not conducted through the scientific method, they demonstrated that this area is far from accepting of non-Anglophones. I hear statements all the time from Gwinnettians and Republican candidates that you must speak English – that to be an American, you must speak English. I wholeheartedly disagree. My grandmother speaks Vietnamese and she’s just as much as an American as you or I. The millions of Spanish-speaking immigrants in this country are just as American as you and me.

I believe that a person should feel free to speak whatever language with which they feel most comfortable and they should be able to do so without suffering prejudice. If you’ve experienced prejudice or discrimination on the basis of your language, please share your experiences with me at tvining@ggc.edu.

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