One of my professors at Penn (Dr. Nelson Flores) recently wrote a great blog post about how Tim Kaine’s Spanish-speaking abilities have been presented in the media. In this post, he used the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies—the idea that we perceive people’s language use through the prism of their race—to show how “for a white politician it is an asset to have any Spanish-speaking abilities. For a Latinx politician it is a liability not to have perfect Spanish-speaking abilities.” He presents this as an example a broader double standard where the bilingualism of white people is applauded and bilingualism of people of color is often devalued.
How does this relate to India and CASI, you might ask? Reading his blog post, I clearly see the parallels to how my language use is perceived in India. As a white American, most people express shock and praise when they hear me speak Hindi here, despite the fact that my speech is often stilted and most probably full of “Americanisms”. Yet even the smallest bits of Hindi garner appreciation.
On the other hand, one of my co-interns is Indian-American and was born in the US. His Hindi is objectively quite better than mine, but he has told me that several people have expressed shock and disappointment when he makes an occasional tense error. Everyone expects him to speak a certain type of “perfect”, unaccented Hindi, and are shocked when they find a slight American accent.
Another clear raciolinguistic ideology—just based on our racial background, our language skills are viewed in completely different lights. So what, you might ask? Isn’t this just a harmless example of people having prior expectations based on someone’s looks?
I would argue that the praise of my Hindi brings into sharp focus a highly unequal power relationship between English and Hindi (and many non-Western European languages). For Indians (or any immigrant) coming to the US, they are expected to speak fluent English and society judges even the smallest grammatical errors. As a white American coming to India, however, I am not expected to know any Hindi. Even a few words, no matter how poorly spoken, command praise. Why is this so? Why are people expected to bow down to English but not expected to learn a language as important for life in North India as Hindi?
The reasons behind these relationships of power are rooted deep in colonialism and not something that one person can change. By becoming more aware of them, however, I can try to approach praise in a more humble way, acknowledging the well-meaningness of the giver while also recognizing the inequality behind the compliment itself. Moreover, it means as Americans we should be more welcome and accepting of immigrants’ linguistic backgrounds. What if in America we gave immigrants the kind of praise I have received for learning Hindi? Rather than viewing English as an expectation, what if we recognized the hard work that goes into learning another language?