The Savagery of U.S. Monolingualism, Part 1 of 3

MultilingualismI often encounter African American college students (and to a lesser extent, AfroCaribbean students, at least those who genuflect to what they call “British culture”) who speak with great pride about only speaking/writing what they call “Proper English,” never speaking a word of Ebonics which is often erroneously interchangeable with “street slang.” These students often cite this ability as the reason for their stellar, academic performance in school.  Despite the fact that we are not at a national, competitive university, these students often think they are at Hahvahd, all because their teachers have emboldened and praised them for their acquisition of a standardized English (if you saw their writing’s content and style, even this, however, is questionable).  Besides the anti-black nature of this sentiment (if black people speak it, it must be wrong) and the utter inability of any of these students to offer any accurate definition of what Ebonics is, the ideology of American empire is fiercely evident.  Only in the United States can you be considered educated or intelligent because you only speak/read/write one, standardized, school variety of a language.  Forthrightly admitting that you do NOT speak/read/write any regional or local dialect and that you canNOT speak/read/write a second, third, or fourth language is simply not cause for celebration.  In many places, this inability marks you as an illiterate peasant who has had no access to school and even that is rare considering how so-called “peasants” often sell wares at markets that require some linguistic diversity.

being_bilingualThe most popular universities in France, for instance, are taught entirely in English, and students of color there go home to speak a third language other than English and French.  Only the context of a savage ignorance and unfound arrogance in U.S. monolingualism/empire would make African American college students think themselves educated for not speaking/reading/writing their own dialect (I do NOT actually call or think of Ebonics a dialect, but I will go with that here for the sake of the argument) and another language. What these students believe to mark them as “educated” actually marks them as ignorant in many, many other parts of the world.  They have traded in linguistic competence and marketability/international relevance for the ability to call themselves MONOLINGUAL AMERICANS.  The levels of stupidity are astounding.

I don’t want to make it seem as if the African American students who I have described have designed these regimes of power or that they are wrong about the status accrued to the linguistic defect of only speaking/reading/writing one language variety.  The ways that we mark and make English Language Learners at-risk students only perpetuates such false consciousness.  The fact of the matter is that bilingual students are less likely to drop out of public school than English-monolinguals. If anything, these students are at-risk of losing their mother tongues, since by the third generation, most children have completely lost facility in their parents’ language in the U.S.  The medical research that I have read also seems to lean on the side of bilingualism: people who speak multiple languages are less likely to get Altzheimers as quickly BECAUSE THEY USE THEIR BRAINS MORE. To be more crass about it: you are less likely to forget your own name and address as an elder if you speak more than one language/dialect.  Yet, here we are, in America, acting as if multilingualism is a sin against humanity.  (Though one might argue that such conclusions are only likely from a monolingual population who literally uses its brain LESS…sorry that was just too easy, just had to go there!)  U.S. colleges and universities have an especially uncanny ability to maintain the savagery of U.S. monolingualism.

Wnglish-onlyAt a previous university, I read terrifying email exchanges (these happened before my arrival) initiated by a chair from another department. This chair forwarded an email to the director of the writing program (WPA) from an international student who composed her email with many surface errors in it.  This chair was incensed that this student could have done well in her one semester of first-year writing and demanded that the program be held accountable.  There is no evidence that the student’s issue, as indicated in the email, was ever addressed, despite the fact that she/her parents paid 35K in tuition each year for this college.  The WPA forwarded this chair’s email with the student’s request to DOZENS of adjuncts, graduate students, instructors, etc teaching in the program echoing this chair’s disgust WITH THE STUDENT’S NAME AND EMAIL visible to EVERYONE (and, obviously without the student’s knowledge or permission).  If you think this is ethical (or even LEGAL) behavior, then just imagine that this were your child and your 35,000 dollars!  Yeah, didn’t think so.  One semester at a U.S. college simply won’t produce perfect grammaticality but that such an international/ELL student has no right to privacy or respect because of this “imperfection” is criminal.  It should come as no surprise that monolingual, monodialectal white men perpetuated the regime I just described and, true to the whiteness of higher education, no one ever challenged their authority or even their own knowledge (or rather, lack thereof) of language and literacy education.  I don’t know what this student’s abilities actually looked like so I can’t give a counter-profile/counter-story, but I can offer multiple counterstories from my own classes this fall.  The triple-threat coming from 1) digital culture(s); 2) multilingual/multidialectal college students of color; and 3) female professors of color will shake up/out new stories of higher education in the 21st century.  It’s an interesting time to be in the academy.  And by, interesting, I do not mean safe, comfortable, equitable, or humane, but then again, the academy has never been that for many of us.  We need to narrate/theorize/take on this triple-threat as part of the work we do in the academy if we want to ever challenge a system where a student for whom English is her THIRD language can’t even get the help she needs from administrators making 6-figures thanks to the tuition she pays. Silence is always complicity.