The dust up about the Duke email about Chinese students speaking Chinese illustrates so much about US language policy that is deeply fucked up. People who understand language policy issues (or linguistics) are always hesitant to comment when this type of…. event happens. There’s a lot to go through so I’ll just list a few in no particular order.
*Many international students in US graduate programs have wildly unbalanced language skills. Here I’m reflecting on the time I spent working in a grad school administrative office where half a dozen foreign students stopped by every day. This is over twenty years ago but I don’t imagine things have changed that much. Many students (especially from East Asian countries) had excellent skills in reading and understanding technical texts that I had no hope of ever understanding. Nonetheless they had trouble understanding basic spoken American English and making themselves understood in return. Students from India had a different problem: They tended to be fluent in some type of Indian English (there’s more than one type) and could understand spoken American but Americans had trouble understanding them.
*Speaking one language syas nothing about one’s ability to speak another. The fact that some Chinese students speak to each other in Chinese doesn’t really say anything about their ability in English. It might be very highly developed and it might be pretty basic – there’s no way to diagnose that except by formal evaluation. Also, if their spoken skills are shaky speaking to each other in English is not likely to help much and actually could hurt (trust me on that one). Speaking to non-Chinese people in English (native speaker or not) will help but there’s no indication of whether they were doing that or not.
*Native speakers usually speak to each other in their own language. There’s nothing wrong or diabolical about that. Communication is like water – it seeks its own level. I’m fluent in Polish but if I’m talking to another native speaker (even one who also knows Polish) we’ll speak in English. Getting upset that Chinese students speak Chinese with each other seems incredibly… weird. It’s just weird.
*Americans have weird semi-religious ideas about English. Some of this comes from Britain and some of it is related to old melting pot ideas, but lots of Americans attitudes toward speaking English is not to distant from a Sunday School teacher’s attitudes toward praying and reading the Bible – you can never do enough of either. This is also why Americans get upset at things like ATM machines where Spanish is an option (by way of contrast, all ATM machines in Europe are multilingual and no one cares).
*Chinese people tend to be loud. Some years ago I was at a lecture given by a distinguished Polish Sinologist, who had devoted decades to understanding and teaching about and promoting Chinese culture, for which he had profound love and admiration. At one point he described a typical conversation between Chinese speakers as ‘straszny jazgot’ (an awful racket) clarifying that Chinese just spoke… louder than Poles (who tend to murmur in public) and if you want to study Chinese or go to China you just have to get used to it. Put Chinese and loud into google and look at the results for yourself. I think one of the issues at Duke just may have been the decibel level and a conversation with a couple of students about the idea of ‘indoor voices’ might have headed off the whole situation. IME once a couple of students from a particular country learn about some previously unknown rule of behavior word-of-mouth spreads very quickly.
*Nobody likes diversity. Everybody says they do and nobody really does (except when it comes to food). Real diversity means being surrounded by different languages all the time and conversational habits that alienate others. What most people want is a nicely color coordinated monoculture, but they think that sounds crude and so they lie to themselves and people around them by make warbling sounds about how great diversity is. Diversity is people from different cultures constantly pushing each others’ buttons forever. If you don’t want that then stop lying about it.
There’s more but that’s enough to start.