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Friday, February 10, 2006

American Hegemony?

A few times this week I have been bothered by people's comments about professors with accents and how awful it is to have to listen to them. While I understand that sometimes there are TFs that you really simply cannot understand, what bothered me the most was these particular professors, while they did indeed have accents, spoke fluid English that was for the most part very correct. The height of my frustration came when in a class, the professor, who is French but speaks excellent English with a light French accent, switched off with the (American) TF and someone beside me said, "Thank God, someone who can actually speak English." Excuse me? Can you speak a second language the way he speaks English? Is this, as I feel, yet another case of American hegemonistic intolerance or am I being too sensitive?


At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hegemony — no. Intolerance and closemindedness — yes.

"Hegemony" insinuates that there is some sort conspiracy, an action taken not by individuals but by some sort of looming power.

Unless you believe that there is an irresistable pressure on students to make these cruel statements, "hegemony" is much too strong a word.

At 12:42 PM, Blogger Andrew Prokop said...

People in all languages and all cultures get annoyed when they have trouble understanding someone's speech. It's not fair and not rational, but it's certainly not uniquely American.

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hegemony is not about conspiracy. It's when certain values or ideas are so dominant in a society that they become, not only normative, but beyond criticism-- they become taken for granted. It does not have to be actively or intentionally pursued, nor even necessarily negative (although it is usually described as such).

And what is funny about these people making those comments is that, in certain places where English is spoken, but in different "dialects" (I am sure there is a more accurate lingustics term), their "normal" speech would be just as difficult to understand for a lot of people.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger kyledeb said...

I agree that people's intolerance regarding TFs is a problem. Whether we like it or not, english is becoming the language of the globe, and listening to different accents and attempting to understand them is essential for a global experience. This is an example of how Harvard College is the least international and the least understanding of what happens around the world in general.

However, I disagree with anonymous above in that their speech would be hard to understand for people with dialects and I would like to hear if you know of any place otherwise. This is not an insult, but an example of how people just don't realize what its like. People that speak variations of english actually understand a midwestern U.S. accent much better than most Harvard Students understand their Chinese TF. That is because U.S. culture, exported on TV, in the radio, and through just plain human interraction, has reached the far corners of the earth. In fact, that is part of the problem. The U.S. is one of the only nations in the world where as your socioeconomic status rises, you speak fewer languages (I would also like to hear of examples where people think that is not true). I see that as not only indicative of the cultural isolation of the U.S. but the very simple practical fact that people don't really have to learn other languages, or relate to other cultures, because people from around the world are already forced to do so with U.S. culture.

From my experience and in the places I regularly visit, Carribean Islands, Belize, to my various international friends and forums, people understand "normal" speech a lot better than "normal" speakers understand everyone else.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle - you said "This is an example of how Harvard College is the least international and the least understanding of what happens around the world in general."

Least international of what? Universities? Where do you gather this from. In my experience, while there are people who are insensitive to cultural and linguistic differences, the majority of students I have met are extremely and genuinely interested in understanding global issues.

At 2:40 PM, Anonymous sarika bansal said...

I just wanted to respond to a couple of things Kyle said:

"People that speak variations of english actually understand a midwestern U.S. accent much better than most Harvard Students understand their Chinese TF."

I don't think it's that surprising that native English speakers have trouble understanding non-native speakers, but that people elsewhere have little trouble understanding native speakers. It doesn't have that much to do with US culture being exported, in my opinion -- I think native English speakers are just more fluid and probably have better vocabulary. Over the summer, I was helping some of my friends in Peru learn English, and I could see many remnants of Spanish in their speech (e.g., in the way they conjugated verbs). If I didn't speak Spanish, I would have had trouble understanding them. That's not "hegemony" or "close-mindedness," it's just a statement of fact.

"The U.S. is one of the only nations in the world where as your socioeconomic status rises, you speak fewer languages (I would also like to hear of examples where people think that is not true)."

I can respond to this from both directions. Elite in India have little need to learn anything besides English. According to my cousins, no one in rich schools in Delhi (which is in the north) learns South Indian languages, and few bother learning Sanskrit, the Indian equivalent of Latin. They all insteadtry to learn English as well as possible so that they'll eventually have the choice of leaving the country. In contrast, I met many poorer people who speak 4-5 Indian languages. I'm sure there are many other countries like that, but India is the one I know the best. Also, think of how many languages are taught at Harvard versus, say, any community college. I've learned Spanish and Portuguese while here, but also had the choice to learn Arabic, Yoruba, Tamil, Nepali, Catalan... the list goes on. I suppose being at Harvard doesn't necessarily mean that one's socioeconomic status rises, but we are awarded many privileges that average Americans are not, including the ability to learn more languages.

About the professors, people just like to hear what is easy to understand. I'm sure students in Uruguay would be whispering the same thing if I taught in Spanish, and I wouldn't blame them.

At 3:51 PM, Blogger kyledeb said...

My bad just to clarify a few things.

Harvard College is the least international and the least understanding of what happens in the world in general, compared to other parts of harvard. the grad schools have hi rates of international matriculation, the faculty is highly international. Internationals at Harvard College is something like 7%, and that is stretching it to the absolute maximum. It includes people like me, who are dual citizens, people that go to boarding schools in the states. It is very rare that you find someone that is entirely divorced from the united states, and if thats who you were to count you'd see that percentage dip way down. That also denies the extreme classism associated with selection which presents an exceptionally skewed view of the global community, if you think Harvard's socioeconomic representation is misrepresented in terms of the U.S. multiply that many times over in terms of internationals. This is due to self-selection in part, but there has also been many obstacles to recruiting internationals. Opposition from alumni, just general adversity to the idea in general. "Harvard is in the United States, why should it waste its resources on people outside of the U.S." is what people say, and after all internationals do get the same financial aid and such, its not hard to imagine opposition to admitting more. That is what I meant, and you can ask me further about the understanding part if you wish because so far I have just addressed the least international part.

Sarika, thanks so much for mentioning India, as soon as you mentioned it I was like of course. That's the reason I write here to expose my views to scrutiny. It's probably true in Australia, too now that I think about it, maybe even in England, but I imagine less so than in India and the United States. I could tear this apart and put forth reasons why these cases disturb me more than make me feel better, but I'll just be humble and admit I was wrong. Besides India represents a huge chunk of the world's population, so it wouldn't be right to refute it as an example. I would still like to hear more if people know of them, and would like to speak with sarika or whoever about the case of india more in depth, if they want to email me.

I don't agree with the representation of your first statement though. Your absolutely right, its easier to understand a spanish person speaking english if you know spanish, but that is precisely my point people don't learn spanish, they don't make that step. I understand my Chinese TFs a lot better now that I'm learning Chinese, but people don't take that step, they complain about how they speak english, exactly what deborah was talking about. You're absolutely right in saying that if you didn't know spanish it would be harder for you to understand. What I'm saying is that "hegemony", "close-mindedness", or whatever you want to call it prevents people from doing so. Why don't people in the U.S. learn spanish? it's everywhere. It's ridiculous that I would go to my cousin's public schools and be able to speak better spanish than the high school teachers, in a country as prosperous as the states. You know what they teach in a lot of Michigan schools instead, Japanese. What I'm trying to expose is the power embalances associated with language and its variations, and spanish in the U.S. is a perfect example of that.

At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you're in america, the burden is on the foreigners and immigrants to speak english better. do people forget that we're in AMERICA?

At 4:05 PM, Blogger kyledeb said...

wow, whoever just said that put forth their own ignorance. America's a big place friend, where French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English are spoken, among other languages. Switch it for the United States, and I'd still have qualms with you.

Think of all the people you interract with in your "AMERICA" that don't speak english. The burden on them is to speak english, huh? to assimilate, huh? Think of how sad it is when parents of latin american origin order there kids not to speak spanish in public places. Speak with any of those children and you'll notice the major identity problems that result from that. I won't even mention the fact that learning another language is an asset, and in no way should it be discouraged but embraced. You're right, your in the U.S. the most prosperous country in the world, how indicative is it of what I was saying that people don't learn another language with all that is at their disposal. How embarrising is it that a Harvard student, with all the resources in the world before him/her, ask that others learn their language, instead of burdening their privileged selves with such a task.

That however, is entirely independant of the conversation. The people we're talking about have, and are attempting to speak english well, and even that people have a problem with.

At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, for 40,000+ dollars a year, I expect to understand what my instructors are saying without much difficulty.

That's not "closemindedness," "intolerance, "biogtry," or any of the other emotionally-charged words some of you are throwing around like candy.

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyledeb, I think you came down too hard on the last anonymous. I'll preface my remarks by saying that my parents are immigrants and that I am trilingual. I obviously agree that learning foreign languages is an asset, and I think the government should fund public schools more so that all American schoolchildren have the chance to learn a foreign language. It also goes without saying that I respect the fact that there are people in this country who hail from different cultures. But I don't think that asking immigrants to learn English is necessarily forcing them to "assimilate," which is a word with a lot of negative connotations. There's a major difference between asking newcomers to learn English and forcing them to completely stop using their native languages. Promoting the English-speaking aspect of American culture doesn't necessarily come at the cost of unfairly demoting other cultures.

There are several problems with not asking newcomers to learn to speak English properly. First of all, there is the efficiency issue: street signs in most parts of the country are currently printed in English only, most government documents are printed in English only, etc. It would be extremely costly to translate all these documents into every language that Americans speak, simply because some immigrants are never going to learn English. Second of all, while Harvard students are privileged enough to have a lot of foreign-language classes at their disposal, many Americans who were born in this country are not privileged enough to be able to afford to learn a bunch of languages other than English. Since this is the case, it just makes sense to ask everyone to learn one common language (in addition to whatever other languages people already know) so that we can all communicate with one another. While I respect the cohesion of the various ethnic communities living within America, I think it would be unfortunate if our country as the whole became uncohesive due to the fact that we have no common language. Thirdly, the English language has played an important part in American culture throughout history: for example, America has made great contributions to world literature in the form of English-language novels, poetry, plays, etc. While it is important for all of us to try to learn other languages so that we can appreciate the literatures of other nations, it is also important for us not to neglect our own national literature. While ethnic pride is a good thing, I do not think that ethnic pride should come at the cost of sacrificing national pride.

That being said, I *do* think it is overly simplistic to say that the "burden" should be completly on the shoulders of immigrants. (I also think the previous Anonymous was wrong to conflate "foreigners" and "immigrants": whereas it is reasonable to expect the latter to learn English, we have no claims on the former. But that's an unrelated matter.) Back to what I was saying: I think the "burden" is also on the shoulders of the American government, which needs to make sure that American public schools are doing a good job of teaching immigrant children English. This means increasing funding for ESL programs, etc. Most immigrants simply can't afford to learn English on their own, and it's the government's job to make sure the necessary resources exist to help them. Many immigrants have low incomes and have to work all week to make ends meet; such people don't have the time to take ESL classes during the day. So someone needs to make sure that there exist a sufficient number of free ESL classes that are offered in the evening, when people can afford to attend them. The responsibility also lies on the shoulders of American citizens who can either volunteer their time to either teach English or take up translating duties.

Like you said, this is independent of the conversation. I just felt the need to respond to your arguments.

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Anonymous a 4:45 pm: Do you actually pay full tutiton, room & board, and fees go here? Many people say "I pay $40K..." and pay a fraction of that. It's frustrating and misrepresentative of reality.

Just pointing it out...

At 5:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While people shouldn't be cruel and mock our TFs' imperfect English to their faces, surely Harvard and other wealthy universities can afford to offer higher-level English-speaking courses to those of its foreign grad students who really *do* have a problem speaking English.

At 5:25 PM, Blogger kyledeb said...

You're right,

It's a concept rooted in what I see as the most detrimental thing about the world, economic oppression, in which having the money allows you to get what you want. I personally have not been throwing around any of the words above like candy, I used intolerance once, to link it to the previous post. I did use "ignorance" above which I am regretting at the moment, but I speak of concepts not of people. I do not believe that individual people deserve the negative connotations associated with those terms, but it is systems that we speak of here which very often do give people the short end of the stick.

By your argument, though, I also pay $40,000 dollars a year and I value the cultural diversity of my instructurs. In fact, I'll bet you anything that international students really pay the whole $40,000 dollars in a much higher porportion than people from the U.S. do, so what of their demands? I don't agree with that concept, however, so we'll apply it to everyone. Black students want more instructors representing themselves, just as South Asian do, and just about every other student minority. As a white student who speaks perfect English, and does have trouble learning from his TFs, I recognize that those concerns most likely take precedent over mine, and it is much more often that I do understand my TFs, and especially professors (who goes to section anyway?) than I don't.

Reading through my comments to see if I used terms loosely, I noticed how someone said people at Harvard are genuinly interested in global issues, which I think is true for the majority of the new generation. What I am attacking is the ability to truly excersise that interest, and come to a reasonable level of understanding. Why is it that people get angry every time we debate injustice? We have our whole lives to be realists, so why not succumb to the ideals of including everyone equally, in the amazing time that is college, with all the resources that Harvard does have. That requires the overprivileged to recognize and give up some of the rights they have (recognize more importantly), and the underprivileged to fight for rights they don't have. I come from a place where the youth in college died for their ideals, and at Harvard so many have given them up without a fight. Complain about us complainers when you get old, that's the natural order of change.

All I'm trying to say, is that the diversity of our TFs should be embraced, or at least the advantages they bring should be recognized. If you can't even do that, its not too hard to change sections. If the fight is not even worth the effort of changing sections that you don't even go to, then I'm sorry to say that there are probably more important things to concern our overprivileged heads about (myself included).

At 6:24 PM, Blogger kyledeb said...

I agree with anonymous at 5:03, and its to a large extent why english is becoming the language of the globe. I'm not too happy with it's dominance, but I do recognize its efficiency.

That being said, it is not the case that people are learning english as well as their native languages, it is more often that those native languages are suppressed. It is for this reason that I argue from the point of view of native languages, because I value the things they add to culture, expression, and such, and I see that it is other languages, not English, that are diminishing in influence. Thanks for your comment, and I do agree I came down too hard on anonymous above.

At 1:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From South Park:

Kyle: Stan, I thought those Afghan kids got you to hate America.
Stan: No, I Iearned something today, and it's that America is our home team, and if you don't want to root for the home team then get the hell out of the stadium.

At 5:02 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

I apologize for not having checked back earlier!

Some thoughts: first, okay, I agree, "hegemony" is too heavy a word for this case. More importantly, though, I want to clarify the point I was trying to make: these professors (not TFs; so presumably they're here for a specific reason and not just because like a lot of other people they are "qualified" to TF for a certain subject) spoke very understandable English that was 99% grammatically correct. A Stats TF who is sweating at the chalkboard because he can't communicate with you--that's a different issue, although worthy of discussion. The experiences I had were with people whose accents were so slight as to be compared with, for example, a light Southern accent. In that case, I feel that it really does show how unwilling Americans are to be tolerant or understanding of things perceived as external or "foreign". The actual ability to communicate was comparable to speaking to someone from a different part of America; I don't think it's acceptable to refuse to take that step to accept this person's background (who, anonymous above, HAS taken the time to learn English and master it to a very commendable level) and respect him or her simply because what they present is not "native" or what we're used to.

At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Cait said...

Look, it seems worth noting how measured Deb is being in her discussion. She's explaining intelligently what she's uncomfortable with-- and she differentiated it from other related situations (TF vs. professor). So, I don't think she's throwing heated emotional terms around "like candy."

That being said, I think its wrong to discredit her point if she does, in fact, have an emotional response to her observation. There's nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable or offended by something-- esspecially if that's followed by an intelligent discussion. Its not as though emotion and logic are mutually exclusive. No one on this thread has become so consumed by their emotional response that it has overshadowed their ability to think things through. If anything, an emotional response has led them to ask questions and examine issues. . .

Don't wig out everytime you see the words "ignorance," "intolerance," "offended," or "uncomfortable."


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