One sign of modern society’s frenetic intemperance is its eagerness to turn perfectly innocent – even necessary – actions into grievances. The tactic keeps the ground constantly shifting. Eventually, the acceptable action becomes anathema. For example, the United States has long helped immigrants integrate into American society by teaching them English.
Learning new languages is not without its difficulties. However, these integrating efforts immensely helped immigrants and their families enjoy academic, economic, and social success beyond their wildest dreams.
Is Language Racist?
Such success is not appealing to the leftist mentality that looks for occasions of strife and discord. Overcoming the difficulties of learning English is now surfacing as an example of “linguistic racism.”
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The chief promoter of this twisted concept is Professor Peter De Costa of Michigan State University. In MSU Today, he provided a vague definition, “acts of racism […] perpetuated against individuals on the basis of their language use.” It might be caused by “jingoistic sentiments that target speakers who do not use the dominant language.” Another manifestation might be Mr. Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese Virus” when talking about Covid-19.
Dr. De Costa claims there are two ways to commit acts of linguistic racism – overt and covert.
Overt linguistic racism happens when someone uses language to ridicule someone who speaks English with an accent. Using mock accents to discredit another falls under this category. Another possibility would be to use an exaggerated form of Irish, Italian, or Polish accent to tell a joke about these groups.
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Covert linguistic racism is less blatant. Dr. De Costa gives the example of saying, “Could you please repeat what you said? I don’t understand your thick accent.” Another such occasion arises when “someone openly says only English is to be spoken in the workplace — despite the fact coworkers might be multilingual.”
A Dose of Reason
These examples of covert racism fly in the face of commonsense. The purpose of language is to communicate the truth to another. If a heavy accent prevents this communication from happening, someone can ask that another repeat. If this communication involves something serious, like the dialogue of a surgical team, then this request becomes an urgent duty. There is nothing racist about clarifying something where lives are at risk.
Likewise, a workplace’s “English-only” rule is entirely appropriate if the only language spoken by all employees in English. The proper functioning of a harmonious, safe and efficient workplace demands a common language.
The Source of Accents
There is nothing wrong with accents. They add to the appeal and variety of a language. Accents reflect the culture of a place and are a positive development. For many Americans, a slight Southern accent indicates a note of hospitality. The New England accent common in Harvard Yard expresses erudition. Marketers used to pay a premium for people with British accents.
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Accents communicate a wealth of information about people. The way individuals speak indicates their social class, place of birth, background or level of education. Woke scholars see such accents as discriminating and desire an egalitarian society dominated by the lowest possible denominator.
The absurdity of linguistic racism is that it hinders those making an effort to learn languages. No one can correct the speaker, lest one offend the learner. Linguistic racism only makes the problem worse by preventing people from learning to communicate better.
Unfortunately, Dr. De Costa’s reach is not limited to Michigan State University students and the academic press. He is also the co-editor of TESOL Quarterly. TESOL is an acronym for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. The TESOL International Association, which publishes the journal, is very influential. Its tentacles reach many elementary and high schools, especially in cities with large numbers of immigrant students. In many places, a permanent position teaching such students requires TESOL certification.
These children need to learn English quickly and thoroughly to prosper in their adopted country. They do not need to pick up ideas that only lead them to resent their future neighbors and employers.
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The effects of trendy ideas like linguistic racism are predictable. Like all “woke” ideologies, it awakens resentment and distrust. It penalizes those who are supposed to benefit from the ideologies.
If Prof. De Costa and his associates desire harmony and peace among different groups, they should look to the Church. They would then find a view of humanity informed by the love of God for all. This Catholic sense is the easiest, surest and quickest path to harmonious relationships among the races and ethnicities. The “woke” philosophies, motivated as they are by Marxist ideas of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” spew only hatred and division.
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