Chinese students make up about 30 per cent of America’s international student population. Photo: Xinhua
SCMP Editorial
SCMP Editorial

Complaining about another’s language is narrow-minded

  • A professor in the United States has been forced to step down over her criticism of Chinese students speaking in their native language on campus
  • While it is not racist to suggest that gaining proficiency in English will increase a student’s opportunities in the US, it surely is when efforts are made to silence people speaking in their native tongue

Discrimination, perhaps even racism, can be found in the least expected parts of the United States. It should not be present in academia, where open minds and possibilities are supposed to prevail, yet a professor at the respected Duke University has been forced to step down as director of a graduate degree course over her criticism of Chinese students speaking in their native language on campus. An author and social activist renowned for her liberal thinking has also had to apologise for lambasting Japanese organising guru Marie Kondo for not using English in a Netflix show. In both cases, it was an educated person complaining about outsiders, suggestive of a narrow-minded view and a lack of experience or understanding of life beyond American shores.

The US does not have a national language, although English is the common means of communication. North Carolina, where Duke is located, is among 31 states that have made it the official language. But the university, where 60 per cent of international students in 2017 were Chinese, has no rules on use of English beyond coursework, nor should it. Megan Neely, who quit as head of graduate studies of a biostatistics course, had emailed students after overhearing several speaking Chinese in a social setting that they would do better to speak English to improve academic and career opportunities.

Duke University professor apologises over Chinese language row

Neely has a point – a good grasp of the local language can open doors when it comes to research grants, study projects or internships. But as leaked emails that caused a social media storm in China and the US showed, she was less than diplomatic in the manner in which she broached the subject, suggesting that speaking in a language others on campus could not understand was “impolite”. If she had put herself in the shoes of American students on a Chinese campus, she would have thought twice about expressing such an opinion.

Author Barbara Ehrenreich was neglectful of her country’s multicultural heritage in her criticism of Kondo, who speaks in Japanese and uses a translator to communicate in English on her show. A backlash was inevitable with the view that, “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English”. Ehrenreich has written extensively on social injustice and inequality, so her narrow standpoint caught readers off guard.

The US education system gives a low priority to foreign languages and the vast majority of Americans are monolingual. They do not understand the difficulties in learning English, although there is no question foreigners will increase opportunities by gaining proficiency. It is not racist to make such a suggestion; it surely is when efforts are made to silence people speaking in their native tongue.