Duke faculty was dead wrong for telling Chinese students not to speak Chinese

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Aug 16 · 5 min read
Photo credit: GDJ/Pixabay

This post was originally published on January 28, 2019 on Chicago Now’s “Message from Montie” blog.

News regarding the Duke University professor who warned Chinese students not to speak in their native language made me reflect on some of my worst college memories.

But before I go into that, if you are unfamiliar with the story, here are a few tidbits:

  • Two faculty members (allegedly) complained to the professor that Chinese students were speaking Chinese in student lounges and study areas.
  • Those two faculty members (allegedly) asked for photographs of the Chinese-speaking students so they could “remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project.”
  • The professor sent an email to biostatistics students telling them to speak “English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

Deja vu: Why book smarts don’t help with common decency

These professors immediately reminded me of a university I attended to earn a certificate in Chicago Manual Style. My employer at the time was paying for the series of courses while I was also in grad school at another university.

But after a comment I heard from a professor telling a student to go “back to her own country,” I refused to return. I continued on with grad school courses but never stepped foot on the other university’s campus again. Click here to read more about that.

Recommended Read: “When POC become each other’s allies

That racist response from a Chicago professor made me want to exit the class immediately. (Photo credit: Create Her Stock)

Where the Duke University professor went wrong

While it can be uncomfortable for two or more people to be speaking a language you do not understand, there were definitely a few factors that should’ve been taken into consideration.

The arrogance of two professors feeling so entitled to hear a conversation that they could not understand, or I’m assuming interrupt to share their unsolicited opinions, is one thing.

But if the students were speaking to each other in student lounges or study areas, they should be able to speak how and when they want to among their peers. If this was a classroom setting in which the professors were supposed to be involved in the discussion, that’s another thing entirely.

To be bilingual among friends

In elementary and high school, I took eight years of Spanish. I toyed with it in college as well.

I had a Mexican friend who knew I wanted to get better at Spanish, so he would only speak Spanish to me on instant messenger. I had a part-time job at Walmart with another Mexican friend, and she would constantly talk to me in Spanish. She even forced me to sell a digital camera to a Spanish-speaking family. Although it was a rough conversation, I got through it and they bought the camera.

Photo credit: jairojehuel/Pixabay

But when the male friend and myself were around English-speaking students and peers, we reverted back to English. When the female friend and myself had English-speaking customers, we reverted back to English.

Nobody got hurt. Nobody’s egos were bruised. And I had the opportunity to embrace different cultures in the process. If anything, bilingualism made me more open-minded about cultures and race as a whole.

Ego vs. bilingualism almost killed a friendship

In undergrad, I remember trying to invite myself to a Japanese friend’s party in her dorm room. She warned me that the entire group would be speaking Japanese, and I’d probably get frustrated. Initially my first thought was, “Well, if I’m there, why can’t they just speak English?”

But I stopped short of saying it because I was inviting myself to an event that was initially not meant for me to come. Just like that, I went, “OK cool.” It didn’t stop me from being friends with the girl. We went on to be friends for five years. I flew out to see her graduate from another school. She came home with me for Thanksgiving and to the Taste of Chicago. And she still kept her tight-knit group of Japanese-speaking friends, some of which I hung out with during her graduation.

Photo credit: Michael Gaida/Pixabay

She had every right to want to celebrate her culture and language in her own private moment. She didn’t forget English when she wasn’t around me. She still spoke it when she was in classroom settings with her professors. She didn’t bat an eye speaking English around my own family.

But she also kept her Japanese sharp when speaking with that group of friends, as well as her mother who only spoke Japanese. I wasn’t intimidated by her wanting to be as comfortable with people familiar with her own culture as she was getting to know mine.

The intimidation factor of bilingualism

If you don’t like the diversity in America, why don’t you leave instead? (Photo credit: Create Her Stock)

There is an insecurity that some people have while being around those who speak multiple languages. They’re paranoid that the multilingual person is talking about them, jealous that they cannot speak another language, or simply too close-minded to embrace anyone who doesn’t look and/or act like them.

While America is completely failing its reputation of being a melting pot, or at least embracing it, the fact remains that there is no official language in America.

And if these Duke professors, or the copy editing professor who I hate to have met, can’t deal with that, then why don’t you find another country to go to? The rest of us are quite comfortable in America.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

14-year journalist; freelance writer/editor (Upwork); Wag! dog walker; Rover dog sitter; Toastmasters member/3x officer; cohost of Do Not Submit; Shamontiel.com

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