Daily Dose of Anti-Bilingual Passive Aggression

by multilingualmania on February 25, 2010

in Bilingualism

Today I was working with a group of colleagues on a project that that has to do with assessment. I work with bilingual programs, so we were naturally working on the assessment piece in Spanish language arts in kinder through sixth grade. We were in a large group and at one point a group of us got together so that we could focus our efforts on working on assessments in Spanish while other groups finished up the work on the English assessments.

The California Spanish language arts standards that we were using to guide the project are written in Spanish and we were discussing how to translate some pieces  into English so that we could make a user friendly document accessible to English-speaking administrators. We were mainly speaking in English, but at times we were reading aloud the standards in Spanish and discussing some of the content in our table group.

At one point, I stood up from the table and walked quickly to another table to get my computer. I turned and asked one of the colleagues, “How do you say artículo determinado in English?” Two of my colleagues at the table began to have a conversation as to whether “artículo determinado” and “artículo definido” were two different ways to say the same thing.

Suddenly, a manager at another table turned around and said, “How do I know you aren’t talking about us in Spanish?”

For a moment I felt a flash of anger, and I almost turned around to say something to her, but I decided against it because lately I have been trying to not have immediate emotional responses to such things. I had already pushed a couple of buttons throughout the day because I had the audacity to urge that we have an “English learner lens” when we look at creating valid and reliable assessments.

Instead of saying anything, I just looked at my bilingual colleagues at the table and we gave one another “the eye” that we were all very aware of what she was actually saying to us.

If I had a penny for every time that I have heard someone make a comment that they are unsure as to whether people in another language might be talking about them, I would definitely be able to go into early retirement. I mean-give me a break-I think that it is a tad bit arrogant to assume that people sit around and flip into another language in order to talk about you right in front of your face. I’m sure that it has happened before, but I bet that most of the time that people are actually doing what language is designed for-to communicate with one another about something.

I used to think that I was being too overly sensitive and reading racism and discrimination into something that was said innocently, but over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the time there is always a passive aggressive message behind such comments: Stop speaking Spanish (or insert any other language).

It’s been a rare occurrence when someone actually has blatantly told me to stop speaking Spanish. Last month I wrote about the time when someone blatantly yelled out, “Speak English!” when I was asking another teacher for ten cents.  A couple of weeks ago, I also blogged about a school secretary who was fired for translating for a distraught parent.

These extreme cases of anti-bilingualism tend to not be frequent occurrences, yet the disdain for speaking another language is often done in a much more passive aggressive way. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the time when people make statements about it being rude when people speak another language or that they are worried people are speaking about them in front of their face is really nothing more than a passive aggressive display of anti-bilingualism.

Sometimes I think to myself that I would prefer for people to just aggressively yell out, “Speak English” because then I would know exactly where they stand and in that case I would be able to defend myself.

Who would have thought that it would ever get to the point for me that I would prefer blatant racism over ambiguous “how do I know you are talking about me” types of comments?

About the Author: Melanie McGrath is a bilingual education fanatic. She passionately thinks, lives and dreams about multilingual education every waking and sleeping moment of her life. Seriously. Melanie is an administrator of bilingual education programs, and considers herself to be an advocate for students, parents, teachers, and others in the struggle for quality bilingual education programs.  As founder of Multilingual Mania, she’s doing all that she can to help create a multilingual and non-racist society one day at a time.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

wenjonggal February 25, 2010 at 10:36 pm

This is really interesting. Perhaps because you are in the States (?) where Spanish is attached to a race, it would be “blatant racism”? But here I have found the same sort of pernicious suspicion of malicious intent with my own mother and speaking French within the province of Quebec: she has accused me of trying to one-up her and make her look bad, incompetent, or insensitive to the French here by actually speaking to a waitstaff in French in a restaurant. My mother (unilingual anglophone) can manage minor things like “trois croissants si’il vous plaît” but asking any sort of question about the menu is beyond her abilities. I have been living here in Quebec for 28 years and so of course it is second nature to speak French in a French neighborhood in a French speaking restaurant about a French menu… it would feel very bizarre (and I might not even have the vocab) to discuss whether the croissant au fromage is gratiné or fondu… But yes, she said I was only doing it in her face to make her look bad and conspiciously English by comparison.

So, racism or not, I think there is a definite malaise and fear, a sense of incompetency and that sort of “dépaysement” that comes about from not knowing the language someone is speaking around you… I think it makes people feel like children, or like someone has secrets, especially for monolinguals. It is an unfortunate paranoia that often comes across as accusatory. I always find it sad that instead, the multilingual language competency isn’t seen as a wonderful asset that anyone would want to have, or have around. It seems somewhat akin to the disregard that many have for “the elite” “overeducated” etc, who have higher education, instead of having a healthy respect and admiration for higher learning.

wenjonggal February 25, 2010 at 10:37 pm

That was supposed to read:
“it would feel very bizarre (and I might not even have the vocab) to discuss whether the croissant au fromage is gratiné or fondu in English instead of French”

multilingualmania February 25, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Yes, I am in the states! That’s my point-languages such as Spanish and other languages are tied to ethnicity, national origin, etc. I sometimes think that the debate about antibilingualism has so much more bigotry than just feeling uncomfortable about not knowing the language. But I can also see your point-people are just completely insecure as you mentioned. So this is what I ask myself over and over in my head, “Is the person racist? Is it just insecurity or jealousy? Is this just a fear of not having “power and privilege”? These types of comments just leave me fuming in my head half of the time because I don’t understand the intent.

wenjonggal February 25, 2010 at 10:55 pm

What are attitudes in the States like about other languages that are not seen as “ethnic” like Spanish? How about Swedish or German or Dutch? Of course we know the hoopla about Freedom Fries, so we can assume there might be some anti-French? Here in Canada so much is tied to the English/French question, which I always find interesting as someone whose background is neither…

When one thinks about it, most unilingual anglophones on the North American continent are first to 4th generation anglophones: my grandparents on one side were Swedish immigrants and on the other were German speakers (until my mom was a preschooler)… so I am always a bit gobsmacked by the assumptions that if I speak English I am representive of a British majority who oppressesd the French Canadians for several centuries, and all the vehemence that comes with that antipathy.

One of my exes who is fluently bilingual (francophone family who lived in the maritimes so he grew up speaking English outside the family) reacted with explosive anger when I suggested he might raise his children bilingually instead of as unilingual francophones here in Quebec. He said because his father HAD to learn English to advance in his company as a young man, he was going to insist his children could live in a monolingual Quebec and be successful. I found it very strange, as he seems to condemn his children (now teens) to a narrower world than he himself can live in. Myself I am valiantly attempting to raise my child in English, French and Mandarin (which I am currently learning)… it just seems his children would be at such a social and economic disadvantage compared to my trilingual son.

So there is an example of “racism” against a perceived “English people” (if we can use “racism” out of its accepted use as needing to be in a position of systemic power) by a bilingual person against bilingualism. And that is very curious, since English was, in Canada, and the States, often the language that thousands of immigrants with different languages and heritages used so they could work and live together in communities, only two generations ago.

carol February 26, 2010 at 12:12 am

I agree that the animosity against Spanish is especially strong in some parts of the States, often tied to unfair assumptions about Spanish speakers.

We are English-German bilingual, currently living in the States. We often speak in German among ourselves when we are out shopping, among people, etc. And we have never been questioned belligerently or accused of talking about people. If people comment, it is generally appreciative. With languages such as German and French, it seems that language use is not tied to prejudice against the nation/ethnic background. Plenty of people dislike the French people (even today) but love to hear the language.

multilingualmania February 26, 2010 at 8:27 pm

@carol Exactly! I was just discussing this with a colleague and we were talking about how the perception is that people who speak french are “educated”. We were wondering what people think about people who speak German in the US and asking ourselves how people react to German speakers. I suggested that maybe it has to do with location, and I hypothesized that maybe there is animosity where there might be a large German population who has attained considerable “power” in certain areas. It’s interesting that you have never been discriminated against for speaking German.

multilingualmania February 26, 2010 at 8:27 pm

@wenjonggal It’s been my experience that people seem to be generally more intolerant towards Spanish, Asian languages sometimes and Arabic. I think this disdain is much more than just about bilingualism.

But it does work both ways, as you suggested. Speakers of other languages can become separatists or also might reject bilingualism, in the sense that you described your ex. I’ve always been drawn to this situation between some francophones and anglophones and don’t know enough about it to really say much. I sometimes wonder if the conflict and antagonism works both ways towards one another. Based on my personal experience, I sometimes start getting an arrogant attitude when I am antagonized by anti-bilingualism and I begin to be so pro-bilingual that I cut myself off from others, etc. We see this in many bilingual programs-sometimes we try to promote and maintain the Spanish to such a degree because in many instances it has been suppressed, and some bilingual programs don’t accentuate English. All of these types of dynamics are so interesting to me!!

Si September 19, 2012 at 9:50 am

I have always wondered hypothetically how one would handle certain specific phases. Granted the speaker could be talking about something all together different, a different person or situation in another time. What if you knew a few german insults. What do you think? If you thought you overheard someone say scheissekopf in conversation after you had done something that could be perceived as slight stupid; maybe you’re imagining things, maybe you’re insecure, then again maybe not. What would you do? What would you think? How would you react? What if that person was talking about you? What if you felt compelled to say something, what would you say, how would you put it? How would you feel about it? Just some questions everyone can feel free to answer how they would handle each scenario. You know food for thought, after all dialogue is always good.

Si September 19, 2012 at 10:34 am

I find it interesting, having knowledge of multiple languages. Personally I feel that it is an essential skill set. That your value as an individual to society triples or doubles depending on how many languages you are fluent in. To be objective however, leaving beside personal bias and so forth; I feel it imperative to play devil’s advocate as always; I feel that society only progresses through discourse and anyone who feels that discourse to be unimportant has already shown they’re true intentions. Civil discourse of course, rational, objective, as unbiased as possible, almost clinical in nature. To achieve such a beautiful thing in countries where freedom, democracy, and freedom of speech are of the utmost importance it is nothing less than an ethical standard to present the counterexample to an argument and take its definition into consideration if not to strengthen your passion for your point than at least to glean some knowledge, learn, educate; and be able to tell others honestly that you are an open minded individual that considers all aspects of all subjects. It is philosophical in nature, and socratic. With that said one must consider if there is anything gained by not in not learning a new language, the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (who didn’t know the earth revolved around the sun) would argue “Yes” or would he? If he would he certainly wouldn’t have solved some of his most important cases, as being a polyglot was an intrinsic value for a number of his cases. He wouldn’t have related to his audience some great quotes and references to Goethe, or put words so eloquently in french. At the same time to be fair the counterexample being that the human mind can only hold so much therefore we must choose wisely that information which we retain in such a precious faculty.

Another counterpoint still others would argue with technology today, we can all have our own personal translator’s in our pocket or iPhone rather.

Another counterpoint to technology is a question of that which is lost in translation, and whether we lose a human element when we ourselves or a translator doesn’t take the time to learn a language.

Can anyone else think of more examples or counterexamples to keep this discourse stimulating?

multilingualmania October 26, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I probably wouldn’t say anything because there is always a chance that I didn’t really hear what I thought that I heard. Half of the time I think that we are more worried about things than what is really happening. I rarely even pay any attention to anyone whenever I am out in public, but so many of us (including myself) make assumptions that people are talking about us, etc.

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