From Colonialism to Anti-Asian Hate: How can we use foreign language to create a more just society?

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How we got here: Colonialism & American Expansion

By far the most important historical context for understanding the intersection of language and xenophobia are British colonialism and American expansion. As the British conquered vast swaths of the globe, they brought with them two things: the English language and White supremacy. English quickly became an international language and one that supported and connected Britain’s vast trade empire. And, even as the British Empire began to crumble, their language remained. Meanwhile, the United States’ economic rise and westward expansion further established English as an influential language across the globe. Over the course of the next two centuries, the United States would repress native languages and implement racist immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigrants explicitly because of their race (American Yawp). The United States had no official language at the time, nor does it now (Ingraham). But, the policies and actions of the United States government through World War II made clear that if you weren’t White and didn’t speak English, you were an outsider and a threat to the American way of life.

“The power to control language offers far better prizes than taking away people’s provinces or lands or grinding them down in exploitation.”

Winston Churchill
(Pagano)

What you need to know: Xenophobia Today

Today, English can be considered the world’s lingua franca, meaning common language, and is the most spoken language when it comes to total speakers worldwide (Teixeira). In large part, English has achieved such universality because of its roots in British colonialism, which serves as the basis for the wealth and cultural influence the Anglosphere continues to have to this day. In many parts of the world, to speak English is to have access to jobs and economic and social mobility. In this way, English fluency has become a commodity (Haitao). English-speaking countries profit off of this demand through tourism, education, and media (Haitao). This puts the Anglosphere at an advantage on the world stage, as they control the goods and services people in other countries seek (Haitao). The United States, being the world’s largest economy and population of native English speakers, is especially advantaged. That works great for Americans but comes at the expense of countries on the other end of negotiations and deals.   

Furthermore, despite the United States’ diversifying population, elements of xenophobia rooted in the English language still linger within the general population. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost half of White Americans feel uncomfortable when they hear someone speaking a foreign language (Ingraham). The past year has exposed how these feelings of discomfort and resentment can combine with xenophobic rhetoric from our politicians to become violent. English, being the dominant language in the US and near-universal among White Americans, Americans who speak a different language at home or at work are discriminated against as a result. The coronavirus pandemic and inflammatory remarks from politicians calling the virus the “China virus” and “Kung flu” fomented anti-Asian xenophobia in the US (Tharoor). In the past year, there have been roughly 3,800 reports of anti-Asian bias in the country, likely representing only a fraction of hate crimes and discrimination that went unreported (Tharoor). These crimes are horrible and reveal uncomfortable truths about the nature of our common language and society, but they also present an opportunity to change our country to become more empathetic, multicultural, and united.

Pew Research Poll

For Now: How can we use language as a force for good?

The following are a series of proposals that I believe will address the issues of cultural erasure, xenophobia, and international inequality which I have outlined above. They are meant to increase cultural exchange, unify communities, revitalize native languages and cultures, and foster international cooperation. I would love to discuss these ideas further, so please post your thoughts in the comments.

Personal Action
  • Learn a new language and about the culture and history of that country
    • When choosing a language, I would recommend that you look at what foreign languages are spoken in your community and see what study resources are available. A good place to start is Duolingo, but in order to absorb that nation’s culture, try finding resources for the language on Youtube.
      • Also, seek out any local restaurants that specialize in that country’s cuisine, and don’t be afraid to tell them you are learning their language! If you are respectful, most native speakers are happy to practice with you.
    • If you’re up for more of a challenge, try learning an endangered language and contribute to language revitalization movements.
      • Hawaiian and Navajo are both endangered but have accessible language learning resources, including limited Duolingo courses.
National Action

Federal, state, and local governments should set new guidelines and standards for language instruction, with a new emphasis on culture and community.   

  • Local governments should determine which languages to teach based on the languages spoken in their community. For example, Atlanta has a large Korean population, yet the Atlanta Public School system does not teach Korean. Instead of Spanish and French, for example, the schools could decide to teach Spanish and Korean, connecting students to a culture and a part of their community they might not have otherwise been exposed to. This is convenient for students because they would have a large community from which they can learn, and for schools because they would have a larger pool of language teachers to pull from.
    • In states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, and Hawaii, local governments could introduce native languages into the school curriculum, helping to revitalize their culture and traditions as Hawaii is already attempting to do.
  • State governments should increase funding for language instruction, set a language course requirement for high school graduation if one is not already in place, and begin teaching language courses earlier, according to the need and availability of teachers.
  • The Federal Government should set guidelines for state and local governments to follow which would refocus language instruction from purely fluency-oriented instruction, an effort that has not been entirely successful, to language and cultural proficiency. 
Under this proposal, which language might your state or city teach?
International Action

Establish Esperanto as the global language

  • The United Nations should add the establishment of an international language to its 17 Sustainable Development Goals and launch a commission to study the need for and implementation of Esperanto as that common language (Pagano). 
  • What is Esperanto?
    • Language invented by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887 (“Esperanto”)
    • Created to be easy to learn for anyone (“Esperanto”)
    • Esperanto almost became the world’s official international language at the League of Nations in 1922, until France vetoed it (Pagano). It has continued to stay somewhat relevant since then, with Duolingo notably offering the language. 
  • Why should it be the world’s common language?
    • Proponents argue that by making Esperanto the world’s official lingua franca, English-speaking countries would finally lose their near-monopoly on the language of trade, diplomacy, and higher education (Haitao). Doing so would also begin to put to rest the language colonialism Churchill described as the British “empire of the mind” (Pagano).
  • Arguments against?
    • The reason I specifically propose a study of Esperanto as an international language is that it remains unclear how it might be implemented in practice. While I find the idea intriguing and justified myself, I am skeptical about whether or not it would work. What concerns me most is that if it is taught in schools as a second language, it might replace instruction of other languages, ones that have a valuable culture and history behind them.

I encourage anyone interested to learn more about Esperanto and some basic vocabulary using the resources below. And please, start a discussion by sharing your thoughts on the idea!

Feedback & Additional Resources

I would love to hear your thoughts about my research and proposals. If you have any suggestions or concerns, please share those as well. 

Here are some questions to get a discussion going:

  • What language, if any, have you learned? How did learning it affect your understanding of that culture?
  • If you had a choice when learning a language at school, what language did you pick out of those offered and why? 
  • If Esperanto became the international language starting tomorrow, would you learn it?
  • If your first language is something other than English and/or you live in a non-English speaking country, I would love to hear about your relationship with the English language. 

Below are some additional resources you can use to start learning a new language!

Intro to Esperanto
Navajo Language 101

learn.mangolanguages.com – A language learning platform with lots of less commonly taught languages that’s free if you have a library card.

Here is the link to my works cited

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. Avatar

    This is such a great presentation! I really enjoyed going through it, and I learned so much. I also think that, in addition to a pretty standard set of languages being taught in schools like you described, the cultures surrounding these languages tend to be taught in a Eurocentric manner (I described this in the survey above too). You’re so right that establishing an international language may lead to neglecting the teaching of other languages and their cultures, but even now, it feels like the cultural history of different languages are being taught one-sidedly or even inaccurately.

  2. Avatar

    Sweta has said it, this is an impressive project! Congratulations for your well-researched conference presentation, Charles! I love how you greet your audience in Japanese in your intro video because you are modeling one of your major proposals: personal action. You propose that everyone should learn a language other than the one/s they were born into. Personal action first is such a powerful call to action for changing society.
    To answer one of the questions for discussion, yes, I did have a choice of language I wanted to study in school in Colorado, but my choices were limited: Spanish, French or German (yes, Eurocentric, as Sweta mentions). I chose Spanish for one reasons noted in the presentation under “personal action”: it was relevant in my community. I had classmates that spoke Spanish and I could see myself using the language to connect with others in my immediate environment.

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