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Martinez: Stop silencing multilingual people

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

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According to the U.S. Census, foreign-born residents made up 13.5 percent of the population as of 2016, and that number is certainly higher considering potential survey methods. Their presence is incredibly important to this country, and it’s expected to rise even further — one projection by the Pew Research Center expects 78.2 million foreign-born residents by 2065. This means a lot more representation in different cultures, languages, backgrounds, religions, customs and more will manifest over the next few decades, all of which should be embraced.

However, not everyone sees it that way in the United States — especially when it comes to languages.

Over the weekend, longtime journalist Tom Brokaw shared his views of assimilation on “Meet the Press.” He said Hispanic immigrants “ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English.” While he eventually walked back on his commentary, the damage was done. Many rushed to condemn his comments, including the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which reprehended both his comments and his apology and claimed his statements insinuated that “U.S. Hispanics are all foreigners, prejudiced as the ‘others.’” They also commended White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor for “fact checking” the remarks during the segment.

In a separate incident, Duke professor Megan Neely wrote an email to all first- and second-year biostatistics graduate students at the university, referencing other faculty members who witnessed students “speaking Chinese (in their words, VERY LOUDLY)” and claimed they weren’t using all opportunities to practice their English. She also wrote, “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. … That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

While Brokaw and Neely both had different ways of saying it, their message was clear: English is the default in the United States, and it should stay that way. That is concerning.

There are dozens of videos online of random people being verbally and even physically attacked by white Americans for not speaking English in a variety of settings. Watching innocent people trying to order food or speak on the phone while getting harassed by strangers pains me to my core.

But it’s that much more insidious when the perpetrators of this violence aren’t just “strangers.” While Neely was virtually unheard of in the public sphere until last week, she sent a very similar email out last year titled, “To Speak English or To Not Speak English,” in which she claimed “speaking in your native language in the department may give faculty the impression that you are not trying to improve your English skills and that you are not taking this opportunity seriously,” stating that students may be cutting themselves off from potential work opportunities.

Brokaw’s example is even more alarming. A famous journalist who anchored NBC’s Nightly News segment for more than two decades, Brokaw is a decorated part of the institution of broadcast journalism. For him to use his platform to spread stereotypes about Latinos in the United States is frustrating but not surprising.

Many who came to Brokaw and Neely’s defense said that people who live in America should speak English for their own well-being. They claimed that if we were to live in France, for instance, we would be expected to speak French.

But that’s a false equivalency. Ignoring the fact that many Americans hold a great amount of privilege when traveling abroad and are granted leeway for their speaking skills compared to marginalized populations within those countries, this isn’t about Latinos or Chinese students. It’s about white people’s discomfort in a country where they’ve unfairly been considered the default for centuries.

Not speaking English is not un-American. Yes, the country was colonized by English-speaking men and the language is spoken by most, but we still have no official language as mandated by the government. English fluency is not required to live here by any means.

Being multilingual is an asset. It offers access to other cultures and people and makes our world a little smaller. When institutional powers shame and discriminate against those who speak more than one language, it sends a message that Americans don’t actually value diversity — or, rather, that they only think it’s positive when it’s not discomforting or confusing.

Brokaw and Neely both had influence in their positions. Their condemnation of Latinos not “assimilating” and international students not speaking English means a lot more than a random video — it shows how xenophobia and harmful stereotypes are embedded in our national conscience. I’m glad Alcindor was able to call Brokaw’s comments out as they happened, but it shouldn’t be on people of color to constantly police offensive statements.

This country only benefits from the sheer number of languages spoken and cultures represented. It’s important to uplift, rather than silence, their voices.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at marissamartinez2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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