Higher education in the United States has been struggling to deal with issues of linguistic diversity for many years. On the one hand, the majority of US citizens are English speakers, and most of this majority are monolingual (having forgotten the bits and pieces of a foreign language they learned in high school). The vast majority of White, middle-/upper-class college or university students fit this category. On the other hand, there are also sizable minorities living in the US (either as residents or as citizens) who speak another language, especially Spanish, as their dominant language. In addition, US colleges and universities have invested a great deal in attracting large numbers of international students from all over the world, most of whom do not speak English as their dominant language.
Domestic linguistic minorities and international students bring linguistic diversity to the student body at institutions of higher education. However, if discourses surrounding second language English speakers as instructors at the university are any indication, the English speaking student population is suspicious of and largely resistant to diversity of language. Further evidence of this resistance comes from Gail Shuck, who has researched how university students in Arizona create negative stereotypes about second language English speakers, portraying them, for example, as children who must receive special attention and consideration to succeed in their university coursework. Many linguists and other language experts have stressed that faculty and administrators at US universities and colleges need to address the language privilege many of their students possess to help promote more mutually beneficial cross-cultural communication and to protect second language English speakers from threats to their civil liberties.
Enter Terri Bennett, nursing student at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. Bennett is an English speaking student who claims not to speak or understand Spanish. The Huffington Post reported that Bennet in conjunction with a conservative activist group known as ProEnglish is suing Pima Community College (PCC) claiming, among other things, that PCC discriminated against her as an English speaker:
PCC’s failure to provide a learning environment that was conducive to English-language speakers limits, segregates or classifies Ms. Bennett in a way which deprives or tends to deprive Ms. Bennett of learning opportunities, employment opportunities and otherwise adversely affects Ms. Bennett’s status as a student and future employee, because of her preference for, and right to, being taught in the English language and her inability to understand the Spanish language (quoted from paragraph 169, p. 20 of the document detailing the lawsuit).
Although PCC expressly denies the allegations of discrimination and other aspects of Bennett’s version of the events, examining the language of the lawsuit produced by the plaintiffs (Terri Bennett and her attorneys from ProEnglish) reveals striking examples of how as English speakers the plaintiffs feel it is within their rights to control the use of Spanish by other individuals. In order to illustrate this, I will examine the report of events detailed by Bennett and ProEnglish, which they allege demonstrate discriminatory acts against Bennett as an English speaker.
On or about January 15, 2013, as another sub-part of her studies to obtain her PNC [Practical Nursing Certificate], Ms. Bennett started a class in Anatomy and Physiology.
During this class, another student in the class moved to sit in the row in front of Ms. Bennett. This other student constantly talked during the class and disrupted the class. She spoke primarily in Spanish.
Upon information and belief, this student was unable to understand the lectures, which were conducted in English, and a friend of hers translated the lectures from English into Spanish during class (quoted from paragraphs 17-19, p. 3 of the document detailing the lawsuit).
As an English as a second language instructor, I sense the description in the final paragraph points toward a phenomenon I’ve often experienced in my class. Two students share a common first language. One is stronger in English, and he or she translates for the weaker student. This can be disrupting to the instructor and other students as Bennett alleges. However, the disruption is caused by the additional noise caused by other voices speaking (besides the instructor), not by those voices using Spanish. However, the lawsuit makes no mention of any immediate attempts by Bennett to request an end to the background noise either from the instructor or the students themselves or any subsequent refusal of that request (until the end of the term when Bennett remarked on her faculty feedback form that she would prefer it if there were “no Spanish in the classroom”, see p. 4, paragraph 24). It is not at all clear that the two students speaking Spanish were being allowed to speak in Spanish during lectures in spite of any disruption it caused to Bennett. Hence, while Bennett may have been rightfully annoyed by the background noise, the disruption is not clearly connected to Spanish as such disruptions might have conceivably been caused by background conversations in English.
During the same class, Bennett alleges that:
During classes, the students were regularly divided into study groups. During the study groups, Ms. Bennett was the only first-language English speaker, and the other students spoke primarily in Spanish. The same occurred during skills labs, clinicals and other classroom activities (quoted from paragraphs 17-19, p. 3 of the document detailing the lawsuit).
We’ve probably all experienced a time when others around us were speaking in a language we didn’t understand. It can be frustrating, especially if we are supposed to be working with them. We might even call this type of behavior impolite, especially if it is being done intentionally to marginalize or exclude. In claiming this as a circumstance of the discrimination in her lawsuit, Bennett implies that she has a right to control the language used by other individual students in her class and that their failure to accommodate her is not only rude but a violation of her legal rights. Notice, however, that such a right does not seem to hold for the Spanish-speaking students.
After the end of this term, Bennett then reports enrolling in another class (Introduction to Nursing) where similar things continued to happen to the point that Bennett claims “it impeded [her] ability to concentrate, focus, listen to the lecture, and participate in group studies, skills labs, clinicals, and other learning activities” (quoted from paragraphs 26, p. 4 of the document detailing the lawsuit). At this point then, Bennett and other English speakers in the class confronted the Spanish speakers:
On or about April 3, 2013, Ms. Bennett participated in an interaction between Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers in her class, in which the Spanish speakers were asked not to speak in Spanish in front of the non-Spanish speakers. The Spanish-speaking group of students laughed and mocked Ms. Bennett and the other non-Spanish speakers (quoted from paragraphs 27, p. 4 of the document detailing the lawsuit).
The above paragraph is the first mention of a specific request to Spanish speaking classmates to accommodate Bennett (and other English speakers). It is noteworthy that the request is not that Spanish speakers make an effort to include and translate for Bennett and others. Rather the Spanish speakers “were asked not to speak in Spanish in front of the non-Spanish speakers”, which was allegedly followed by laughter and mocking. While obviously it’s not nice to mock people, Bennett’s request further belies her expectations that she should be able to control the language of other individuals. Rather than seeking more cooperation in communicating across languages, Bennett and her peers ask for a complete end to Spanish communication in their presence. Note again that a similar request (not to speak English in front of them) delivered to Bennett by the Spanish speaking students would not be viewed as legitimate.
It is at this point that Bennett reports deciding to report her problems to the Nursing department administration. Her meeting with the Director of the Nursing Program (David Kutzler) did not go as she had hoped, however. He was not receptive to her complaints and allegedly called her a “bigot” and a “bitch” (to be clear, if this is true, it’s quite unprofessional on the part of Kutzler, although he denies it).
Ms. Bennett was completely taken by surprise, and said that she was there to complain about an impediment to her learning in a PCC classroom and yet Mr. Kutzler was accusing her of discrimination and harassment (based simply on her complaint to him in the prior few minutes) for requesting English-only in the classroom (quoted from paragraphs 27, p. 4 of the document detailing the lawsuit).
Bennett’s apparent shock at the claim that she is being discriminatory (note the italics in “accusing her“) is interesting in that her request that she as an English speaker should be able to control the language used by other students is fairly obviously discriminatory in that it would give her a power over the other students that they do not have over her. Bennett’s apparent shock then suggests that she is not conscious of the double standard she is proposing.
Bennett also makes a number of claims about the way the administration handled her complaints about Spanish in the classroom. You can read them in the lawsuit, but they are not relevant for my purposes (examining her claims of discrimination as an English speaker), since the allegations detail administrative abuses that are not specific to her as an English speaker (for example, Bennett alleges the administration attempted to circumvent the anonymity of her course evaluation form and also that they were generally hostile toward her).
Of further interest is the way in which ProEnglish and Bennett have tried to use Arizona’s constitutional specification of English as the official language to justify the privileged position of English and Bennett’s right to control her fellow students’ language use. The Arizona state constitution specifies that English is the official language of the state and more specifically states that “Representatives of government in this state shall preserve, protect and enhance the role of English as the official language of the government of Arizona”. Bennett and ProEnglish allege that PCC and its faculty are representatives of the government (because the school is state-funded). They also broadly interpret the notion that these representatives should “preserve, protect and enhance the role of English” to mean that Spanish speakers can be legitimately asked not to use Spanish in the presence of English speakers.
Groups such as ProEnglish have traditionally claimed that their attempts to enact official English legislation have nothing to do with discriminating against other languages. For example, here is an excerpt from ProEnglish’s website:
…official English laws are unfairly accused of criminalizing the use of other languages, not only when used informally by government officials, but also when used by people in their private conversations. Such characterizations are false. None of the 31 states with official English laws already on the books prohibit the use of other languages by private individuals or businesses, or for many legitimate public needs.
In the excerpt above ProEnglish claims that official English laws are not designed to impede the right of individuals to hold private conversations in other languages. However, ProEnglish’s active involvement in this case, which seeks to construe the use of Spanish by students in a classroom as a violation of the rights of an English speaker tells us something about the broad purview they envision official English laws having.
Bennett’s case then suggests that English speakers in the United States benefit from a great deal of language privilege (and that it operates in an unnoticed but assumed fashion). Bennett as an English speaker seeks to be able to control the language used by her fellow students in much the same way that many English speakers wish to prevent the use of other languages in their presence. Whatever the impolite or unprofessional behavior of others in this case, the plaintiffs clearly indicate that they believe English speakers have the legal right to control the language of non-English speaking students in a classroom or other educational setting. This attempt to expand the privilege of English speakers should provide some indication of the motives of groups like ProEnglish, who claim to be interested in monitoring language used by governmental agencies but seek to interpret this in ways that impact day-to-day conversations by individuals not affiliated with the government. Cases such as these provide more reason to be suspicious of official English legislation at the state or federal level.