“Wow. So if you started from high school, that means you’ve only known English for how many years?” I heard only the sound of our blinks.
Professor snickered, “It’s not a trick question, I promise. Math’s just not my strong suit.”
I mapped. The flanks of my tongue would shove forward, crouch and curl to tap against my hard palate, and catapult itself back to meet the alveolar ridge.
“Six?” The word stretched and dragged. Math for sure isn’t my strong suit either.
“Darn. Your English is just really, really good.” They flipped through my midterm packet, eyes still wide. “I honestly wouldn’t know you’re not a native speaker if you didn’t tell me. I wish my Spanish could come close, but it’s not looking good for me after ten years.”
Their finger located another short response I got partial credit for. “Take a look at question thirty-two for me.”
The tangent Professor went on during their office hour more or less epitomizes the chorus of comments I hear when I disclose that I only began receiving English education upon leaving the Taiwanese school system in eighth grade.
I’ve always been at a crossroad. On one hand, I understand the logic behind and the good-natured sentiment of these remarks. The lack of salient, stigmatized linguistic features are often conflated with proficiency. My ability to attain this “proficiency” as a late, sequential English learner, considered an unlikely and commendable feat, then supposedly warrants recognition and praise. However, this well-meaningness is often lost in translation, as I can’t help but inspect the dangerous implications of this line of thinking. From the so-called “good” English, the converse category naturally comes to mind:
“Bad” English, “sub-standard” English, “scum” English.
What makes “bad” English deserving of contempt is governed by a tangle of arbitrary, nebulous rules. Yet, these rules also seem to be mundane and agreed upon, much like how the sun always sets in the west. The world disproportionately targets the English of the non-white, non-native, non-northeasterner, non-wealthy, non-disabled, non-cis-straight—the many have-nots. The consequences are deleterious.
Speaking “bad” English is a small, quiet kind of dying; it’s being funneled through a kaleidoscope and coming out the other end in churned fragments.
I think about an English laced with heavy traces of Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien, which I only dare let slip back home and in private. I wonder if Professor and others in my program can still see me in the same light as they currently do. I wonder why it’s so hard to believe in my claim to belong in queer spaces when I sound nothing like my peers and the figures revered in popular media.
I think about my English: high-pitched, nasal, and bright, bordering on falsetto. I think about the sophomore boys who cornered me before dance rehearsals and growled “faggot” before bursting into a fit of laughter. I think about how my larynx drops, sometimes even unconsciously, when I’m surrounded by masculine presenting individuals. I think about how other gender non-conforming folks and I are construed deplorable others.
I think about the English my ESL classmates spoke in Amsterdam, an excursion on the eve of our first model United Nations conference abroad. I think about the pedestrian who decided we spoke “bad” English, barked at us to “get the fuck out of his country,” and spat in our faces. I think about how we hesitated to venture out from the sanctuary of our hotel every night afterward and the panic that lingers wherever I go in New York. I think about how we were made intruders.
I think about the African American English Rachel Jeantel spoke on trial to indict George Zimmerman, a police officer who shot and killed Floridan teenager Trayvon Martin for no defensible reason. I think about the jurors who decided she spoke “bad” English and dismissed her key testimony. I think about the verbal assault later launched against her and all Black Americans. I think about how they were rendered expendable and inarticulate.
I think about the “bad” English so many of us speak. I think about the way power corrodes the truths we speak before we can dream of speaking truth to power.
The words “cultural and linguistic humility” have begun sprouting up in curricula (mine included), clinician websites, ads, SLP merchandise, personal statements, everywhere.
That said, to what extent are we interrogating our biases and practice under the frameworks of humility and empathy? To what extent are we acknowledging the inevitable and dumbfounding diversity of language, as guided by linguistic research that has proven time and time again of the systematicity and validity of all linguistic varieties? To what extent are we disrupting cycles of harm?
The task at hand might be daunting, but not impossible. In this lifetime and this ever more globalized world, we are bound to encounter interlocutors who speak “bad” English. When you do, and when you think of noting the parallels between aspects of their speech and “good” English, I encourage you to pause and reflect for a moment:
What constitutes this “good” English? In constructing the category of “good” English, is morality and value attached to certain linguistic varieties but not others?
Why are distinctions made between “good” and “bad” English? Is it possible to trace these distinctions to residues of the many systems of power plaguing modern society (racism, sexism, xenophobia, cisheternormativity, classism, etc)?
Are the ideas of “good” and “bad” English conducive to subverting these systems?
Is there a more neutral way to think of English and linguistic varieties (as naturally occurring differences, for example)? Is it possible to implement this neutrality in professional practice?
And please, stop “complimenting” me on my English.