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“Subtitled Dreams”

By Chu May Paing

I dream about the day when I am no longer praised for my “well-articulated” thoughts.

The week before the Reading Week in the fall of 2018 was a typical week for the final review at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In the last recitation for a large undergraduate introductory course on Language in US Society that I am TAing for, I asked one of the review questions, “What does establishing agendain the interviews mean?” During the semester, we had learned the discursive structure of political interviews: how an interviewer sets up an agenda for the interview with presuppositions and preferences and how a politician might evade or resist the agenda. A student asked, “What is agenda?” I clarified, “How do we set up an agenda in our conversations?” More than one student chimed in; they did not understand my question. Out of frustration, I repeated, “agenda, agenda! You don’t remember?” At one point, students exclaimed, “Oh, you mean agenda!” They continued to explain to me how the word “agenda” is supposed to be “pronounced like the word Canada.” As a non-native English speaker, I had produced a “hypercorrected” version of the word “agenda” [əˈd͡ʒʌdɑ:ɹ] with the long vowel and an added approximant at the syllable-final position instead of the common American pronunciation [əˈd͡ʒʌdə]. The class dwelled on my pronunciation for a while instead of reviewing its theoretical meaning.

Incidents like this one are not new but part of my daily encounters. As a non-native English speaker, I have heard countless comments on my pronunciation, on my word choice, and on my sentence structure in English. Over the seven years that I have been in the US, my skin has become thicker for those criticisms. I have even incorporated examples of fart and fat, and work and walk as “the most difficult minimal pairs in English for Chu to learn” when we discuss the topic of second language acquisition in the recitations. (I still have problems with those alveolar approximants!) I’ve learned to “take it as professional advice” from a professor who told me, “You need to work with a copy-editor for all of your final papers if possible.” I’ve learned to shrug off a comment made by an anonymous student that “she doesn’t speak English” in the post-semester teaching evaluation form. I’ve attempted to read it as a matter of concern on professional progress after hearing a professor’s articulated doubt about whether a fellow non-native English-speaking graduate student of color can and should teach.

The job of a linguistic anthropologist and the job of a professor shouldn’t have to be a contrast between being a researcher in the field and sitting in the armchair teaching and writing. In the first place, the reason why I became drawn to the fields of linguistics, and later to linguistic anthropology and sociocultural linguistics, was because of my own personal experiences with linguistic discrimination as an immigrant in the US. I yearned for an explanation as to why my ex-boss at a Vietnamese takeout place in New York City felt the need to justify her decision to pay me $4.00 per hour due to my “heavy accent.” In my last year of undergraduate, I found refuge in linguistic anthropology. Learning in particular Irvine & Gal’s concept of language ideology – ideas and perceptions about people based on the language(s) and linguistic variet(ies) they speak – gave me the answers to why people discriminate against each other based on language. Unfortunately, these events of linguistic discrimination and linguistic othering are not merely the fleeting moments of in-group/out-group categorizations; their outcomes are seriously consequential for the life of people impacted by such discrimination. For instance, linguistic differentiation contributes to the genocide of the Rohingya population in my home country, Myanmar; lack of mutual intelligibilities and of shared diachronic emergence between the mainstream language Burmese, the language of the recognized ethnic-minority Rakhine, and the Rohingya language are used as justifications for ethnic differentiation and even ethnic cleansing.

To my understanding, our goal as linguistic anthropologists is to make sense of myriad ways through which we as human beings interact with language. Graduate students of color with English as a second language variety are also part of that community of practice. I admire the fact that most linguistic anthropologists are constantly at work to dismantle the foundations of language-based misconceptions and discrimination in various research capacities. English fluency as a measurement of those students’ scholarship and professional progress should then be at least challenged as well, if not dismantled. Almost all graduate programs in linguistics, anthropology, and other disciplines alike require training in language(s) that pertain to the students’ research plan. Linguistic skills in other language(s) by native English-speaking students are praised (perhaps while exoticizing the language(s) and culture(s) other than English). Linguistic skills in other “prestigious” languages by non-native white students are considered as advantages. Their language use is masked under the cloak of whiteness and white privilege. On the other hand, the graduate students of color who speak languages other than English are still imposed upon by standard language ideology and their linguistic skills are rather downplayed and they are even chastised. My intention here is to point out this hypocrisy between our disciplines’ theoretical and empirical interests and its linguistic actions in the everyday life of graduate training for non-native/non-white English speakers.

I will mention a few of those actions systematically in place within the walls of academia. Most doctoral studies are funded with teaching fellowships. Research assistantships or other administrative opportunities are occasionally offered. However, the number of those opportunities is usually lower than the number of the students who are in need of and are interested in those opportunities. These limited teaching and service opportunities inevitably create a sense of competition among the students and responsibility for the professors to pick and choose whom to award those positions to. Often, it is non-native/non-white English-speaking students like myself that are denied those opportunities. The reason behind these decisions is generally not transparent. These actions are rather equated as concern for the student’s progress in the program. The excuses range from, “Oh, you’d have been a good representative for ESL students;” or “You were our second choice!” randomly given at times. These explanations are examples of what Burmese call chwaethate (lit: “put one’s sweat to sleep”), the act of merely drying one’s sweat but not stopping the cause of action that makes somebody tired and sweaty. They do not discern the deeper cause and reason why certain graduate students are often excluded, but they stem from “liberal guilt.” Graduate training involves not just training to become a scholar, but to become a good public servant and educator. However, the seemingly ad-hoc but systematic mechanisms deter non-native/non-white English-speaking students from partaking in those trainings that remain predominantly white spaces. Our accents are made fun of by the students and the peers without any consequences; our so-called dysfluency in English is branded as a hinderance in our academic performance; our faces and bodies are merely tokens for the discourses of diversity in the university and in the departments. Borrowing Judith Irvine and Susan Gal’s notion of linguistic differentiation, I would say these actions – even if being done unintentionally—“iconize” non-native English-speaking graduate students of color based on our language use and “erase” our involvement in university and departmental service and community.

The authority to judge on our scholarly performance rests not in our hands. We cannot challenge the idea that we are “not there yet.” More than other graduate students, non-native/non-white English-speaking graduate students like myself feel as though we have hit the glass ceiling of academia when the expectations from us are not clearly spelled out but the remarks on our language use constantly underscore our marginalized status in the academe. While we know teaching evaluations like “she doesn’t speak English” do not comment on our teaching styles and abilities, they still hang on our necks and alongside our CVs in our job searches. It is time we stop and think if those evaluations are being made fair for graduate students who might have to first formulate a grammatical English sentence in their heads before they speak up in the seminars. It is also time we foster conversations on how to best support teaching assistants who teach recitations with “accented English” rather than leaving it up to the cost of their emotional and physical labor. It is time we reflect upon the reason why those students are being accepted—as potential scholars or merely as diversity tokens to keep up with the program’s façade as “socio-politically woke.” It is also time we remove those systematic mechanisms that deter graduate students of different linguistic and sociocultural backgrounds to join academia rather than stressing on maintaining the “quality” of the academe. For the time being, I will keep dreaming; at least my dreams don’t have to be in English.

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to the community of Scholars of Color in Language Studies (SCiLS), especially Juan García Oyervides, for their support and insights on this topic.

From the Editors of JLA:
The Co-Editors of JLA would like to bring to your attention three articles focusing on issues of ideology and disrimination in language.  Joseph Errington provides a brief but pointed overview of the notion of language ideology; Hilary Parsons Dick and Kristina Wirtz have guest-edited a special issue entitled Racializing Discourses; and Krystal Smalls considers the reproduction of anti-black discourses in an institutional setting in the US that see black people generally as violent.
-Errington, Joseph. 2008. Ideology. JLA 9 (1-2): 115-117. Click here to access article.
-Parsons Dick, Hilary and Kristina Wirtz, eds. 2011. Racializing Discourses. JLA 21 (s1). Click here to access article.
-Smalls, Krystal. 2018. Fighting Words: Antiblackness and Discursive Violence in an American High School. JLA 28 (3): 356-383. Click here to access article.