“Stop Speaking Chinese!: This is America”

Members of the Biostatistics Department at Duke University had complained in the past about Chinese graduate students speaking in their language instead of English in the Biostatistics area. Recently the Director of Graduate Studies in the department, Assistant Professor Megan Neely, received a new complaint from two faculty members about Chinese graduate students speaking their language “very loudly” in the student lounge and other student areas. According to a New York Times article, the faculty members’ objections went beyond the volume of the conversations:

They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.

So upset were they that they looked for identifying information about the “offenders” to exclude them from future projects:The faculty members wanted to identify the students and write down their names, in case the students sought to work with them in the future.

Given her administrative position, Professor Neely felt obligated to contact the Chinese graduate students to make them aware of the faculty members’ displeasure and warn them about possible consequences they could face if they persisted in speaking Chinese in the buildings that house the Department of Biostatistics. She sent them an email that included the following request on behalf of other Duke faculty members:

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building . . . . I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in . . . professional [settings].

Chinese is one of just a few racialized languages in the United States, and complaints about speakers supposedly being rude and missing opportunities to learn English just for sticking to their own language are often pretexts to silence them. Silencing aims at the suppression of racialized languages (often via the now famous command “Speak English, You are in America”) and the preservation of English as the dominant language. Elsewhere Joe Feagin and I have discussed silencing as part of the linguistic oppression of Spanish in the US (See “Language Oppression and Resistance: The Case of Middle Class Latinos in the United States,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31(2008):390-410).

The Duke professor’s memo created a great deal of controversy. Ken Lee, chief executive of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, complained that

Forcing Students to repress their heritage language further perpetuates a wrongful fear toward Asian and Asian-American students.

A Chinese foreign ministry representative stated in a briefing that

If a Chinese university required that American students not use English to communicate, I think this would not be normal.

Mary E. Klotman, the Dean of the School of Medicine, where Biostatistics is housed, apologized to the Chinese students in a letter and said that she had asked the university’s Office for Institutional Equity to do a “thorough review of the program” in order to “improve the learning environment for students from all background.” Then she added:

I understand that many of you felt hurt and angered by this [Professor Neely’s] message . . . To be clear: There is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.

Professor Neely asked to step down from her position. I feel bad for her: She is an untenured Assistant Professor caught up in a major controversy not mainly of her making. Although she may not suffer adverse consequences, she is likely to be upset. I would be. It is inevitable to wonder where the two complaining faculty members stand at the conclusion of the language denigration controversy. Their request to silence the students of color runs counter to Dean Klotman’s categorical position of no linguistic restrictions outside the classroom. Their stated intention to exclude graduate students from future research projects for speaking their own home language openly seems vindictive and unprofessional. Will the Duke Medical School investigate them?

José A. Cobas, Ph.D. is emeritus professor of sociology, Arizona State University.