Learning English Goodly

by John Fan

This piece was originally published in the Phoenix in Spring of 2017. We thank the author for allowing us to republish with some edits. 

Learning English is hard. I was in 8th grade when I really started trying to learn the language. When I was growing up in China, I didn’t go to an international school, and, at the time, my English class was teaching the basics that native speakers probably learned when they were in kindergarten. I wanted to learn more English to prepare for the admissions test of one of the top high schools in Shanghai so that I could have a better chance of getting accepted. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but it was even harder than I thought. You see, I was not just bad at English; I was terrible at it. In retrospect, I can’t believe I even tried. I could barely follow what the teacher was saying in class, and he already gave up on me after I consistently ranked near the bottom of my class on every English exam. It also didn’t help that I didn’t like the teacher, since he wouldn’t allow me to join his soccer team.

If it weren’t for a TV show called Friends, I probably would’ve failed in my attempt. Thanks to China’s loose copyright regulations, I watched the show every day. (I eventually watched all ten seasons at least seven times by the time I graduated from middle schoolthat’s 616 hours, or 25 days, of Friends.) For those who are not familiar with the show, it is the story of six New Yorkers and their wild adventures. (At one point, one of the characters was pregnant with her brother’s triplets!) Because of this show, I became enamored with what I thought was the American lifesix close friends, sitting in a coffeehouse all day, telling sometimes risqué jokes, and living in the greatest city on Earth, with the company of each other. I thought to myself that one day, I’ll also live in America, have six American friends, and tell jokes and drink coffee everyday.

I didn’t realize at the time that there was one problem with this plan: it’s hard to tell jokes in English. If you don’t believe me, try telling jokes in Spanish or Arabic or whatever language you are currently learning. It’s also hard to understand jokes in English. I still have no idea why knock knock jokes are funny. These may seem like minor issues, but during my first year at Swarthmore, I had a very difficult time finding friendsafter all, would you like a friend who can only nod awkwardly at something hilarious you say? In the end, of course, I learned to fake laugh.

But there is a more serious problem: no matter how perfect my English accent is or how hard I try, learning the language does not mean fitting into the culture. People always assure me that I will eventually find my niche here, but I still don’t feel like I have. Fitting in is not just an individual act; it requires acceptance on the part of the community members as well. Ask any recent Chinese immigrant and he or she will tell you how hard it is to get accepted by “White people.” It is this dimension of “fitting in” where language plays a more insidious role.

One of the most enduring stereotypes of Chinese living in America is that we either don’t know how to speak English or that we talk with a funny accent. Hollywood reinforces such stereotypes by asking actors to exaggerate or fake a “Chinese” accent. Last year, one particularly racist Fox news segment asked Chinese-American seniors for their opinion on Trump and when the interviewer did not get a response, they were made fun of on national TV for not knowing how to speak English.  Once, when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a security guard stopped me but refused to explain to me in English what was wrong, or that I forgot to check my bags, because she thought I was just another clueless Chinese tourist. Such stereotypes about immigrants and outsiders are often used to justify xenophobia and racism. According to Adam Cohen, the author of the book Imbeciles, supporters of eugenics and immigration restrictions in the early 20th century relied on intelligence tests that favored English speakers to show that immigrants from other countries were genetically and racially inferior to immigrants from England and Scotland. The testimony of one eugenicist in particular, Harry Laughlin, caused one Senator to warn that “[w]e are coming to a pitiful pass in this great country when it is unpopular to speak the English language, the American language.” It’s hard not to see the reflection of these ugly moments of history in contemporary politics and daily life.

Xenophobia, understood this way, cannot simply mean fear of foreigners. Laughlin thought the line between “good” and “bad” immigrants should be drawn on the basis of whether their racial types are “assimilable.” Again, “assimilable” meant conforming to Western Europe cultural standards. This is, of course, nonsense. After all, can biological features even be described as “assimilable?”  But, by giving his and other eugenicists’ prejudices the credence of a scientific theory, Laughlin justified what many Americans already thought was true: these outsiders do not appreciate their language and culture, these outsiders will contaminate their culture and bloodlines. As historian Yuval Harari points out in his excellent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, hierarchy is often maintained by a primitive fear of pollution, whether by things or by people. It’s telling that Laughlin calls the “racial qualities” or “hereditary traits” of immigrants the “sanitary feature” of these people.

Would the TV show “Friends” have been so successful if it had been one Asian guy and five white people? I’m not sure. But in the course of writing this essay, I have to confront my own biases as well. What made me think that having American friends is so important? Why couldn’t I just drink coffee with friends back home in a Chinese coffee house? Why did I try so hard to learn the language? I do not regret coming to Swarthmore, of course, but my original motivation matters.

We also need to rethink how familiarity with English is intricately connected with membership in different communities (i.e. studentship at Swarthmore, or citizenship). There are many “radical” suggestions that we can possibly implement to deal with this issue:

First, we should stop requiring international students to take the SAT. It is unreasonable to expect international students whose first language is not English to read or write as fast as native speakers do while still in high school.

Second, Swarthmore should de-emphasize the English language testing requirement for international students. Many Chinese students, for example, score higher than native speakers on the Test of English as a Foreign Language after spending money on private tutoring. Some minimum requirement is necessary and for students interested in humanities and social science the requirement can be stricter.

Third, we must stop thinking that being able to speak English is normal. Many international students, for example, are offended by people who compliment their English. I worry that their attitude ignores the fact that being able to speak English is itself a kind of privilege in an English-speaking country.

Finally, this should go without saying, but we cannot mock people who have an accent or who speak broken English. A friend of mine at a well-known business school told me once that a group of second-generation Chinese-Americans mocked their professor’s accent behind his back. I hope this doesn’t happen at Swarthmore.