Of Language and Double Standards

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?

5 thoughts on “Of Language and Double Standards

  1. This is beyond silly. The bilingualism of people of color is “devalued” because they have much more opportunity to learn their second language, being exposed to it at home and maybe even cultural events. If they didn’t take full advantage of those opportunities and perfect their second language, then their bilingualism is not unusual nor is it something for which the person of color actively worked.

    1. Hi Satya. Thanks for comment. Respectfully I will disagree–I think you are giving much more agency in this matter to a “heritage language speaker” than is often the case. Many factors will influence someone’s proficiency in the heritage language: the percentage of time parents speak the language, the diversity of voices heard in that language (is it just the parents or also the grandparents, community members, media/film/etc.), and society’s attitudes, just to name a few off the top of my head. Language is mostly acquired when we are quite young and have no control over any of the variables. Thus I think it is less about “taking full advantage of those opportunities” and rather whether the environment was conducive to the heritage language or not.

      Moreover, I think American society often encourages the “high-school Spanish” flavor of bilingualism but discourages immigrant bilingualism. Some parents also wrongly view language acquisition as a zero-sum game where children must forget/stop speaking the home language in order to fully acquire English.

    2. I get what your saying, but as an Indian American I can tell you that whatever Hindi I know I had to teach myself. My parents just don’t speak to me in Hindi very often, and thus I never fully learned. I would love to speak perfect Hindi, but it’s difficult to get to that place when most Indian immigrants in the US mostly speak in English to their kids and even amongst themselves. So, the parent’s mother tongue is very much neglected. Also, Indians in India view English as essential for being successful. And Indian kid in America doesn’t necessarily view Hindi in the same way, especially if the parents haven’t instilled a pride for one’s heritage.

      1. Thanks for your comment! I agree with everything you have noted–I think we were mostly envisioning different ages of language acquisition. I was thinking about a child age 0-8ish when I said that he/she probably does not have much agency in “choosing” to learn the heritage language or not. When kids get older, though, your comment becomes very salient.

  2. Wonderful post, Jacob! As a person from a multi-lingual, multi-cultural family, this has been a topic very close to my heart. Out of curiosity, what class did you take with Prof. Flores? I’d love to take one next semester.

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About Jacob Berexa

University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2017, majoring in South Asia Studies and minoring in Linguistics. Intern at LEAP Skills Academy in Yamuna Nagar, Haryana.