Language Patrol

by Gregg Brekke

We tend to think that popular people such as Peter Jennings and Justin Bieber are friendly, international-border crossers. We ignore the OH sound of their Canadian speech. The pronunciation “OHt” (out) and “prOHcess” (process) pose no danger to us. To many, the former Govern-ator and Terminator actually sounds tougher and more authoritative with his Austrian accent.

For other dialect users, however, there is no place to hide. One utterance of accented English exposes their identity. Sometimes, a single sound or word constitutes an illegal border crossing.

In the autobiographical story “My English,” Julia Alvarez shares her language shame: “My native tongue [Spanish] was not quite as good as English, as if words like columpio were illegal immigrants trying to cross a border into another language. But teacher’s discerning grammar-and-vocabulary patrol ears could tell and send them back.”

Language patrol is on the rise. More than 30 states have designated English as their official language, and a recent Rasmussen report reveals almost 90 percent of U.S. citizens support making English the official language of the land. According to a recent University of Texas poll, this trend is growing along the border where English and Spanish have coexisted for hundreds of years: 70 percent of the Lone Star State supports creating an English-only law.

What does official English policy look like? The group U.S. English explains: ”Declaring English the official language means that official government business at all levels must be conducted solely in English. This includes all public documents, records, legislation and regulations, as well as hearings, official ceremonies and public meetings.”

The unspoken message of this language favoritism is that English is the badge of full inclusion and other languages are unwelcome in the day-to-day workings of state governments and services. For much of the U.S. English speaking public, foreign languages and accents introduce some sort of disorder into civic life. Take for example this quotation from NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly: “It is logical, you walk into a police station and you hear people speaking a language among themselves other than English, it certainly could be at the very least disconcerting and not necessarily a signal that you are there to assist.” The logic is hegemonic. Never mind that the person walking into the station might understand the non-English conversation and feel right at home, or that the police officers will automatically and unconsciously shift to English when addressing someone new.

When languages become quasi-illegal, speakers do too. While the new Arizona and Georgia laws widen the scope of law enforcement powers on the lookout for 500,000 plus undocumented people living on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, other invisible U.S. linguistic borderlands are heavily patrolled too. In situations of national security threats, dialect profiling identifies friendlies and hostiles.

In international spy literature, language fluency is equal to survival. The English-speaking character Marshall in the novel The Great Escape tries to pass as a Frenchman behind Nazi lines unsuccessfully: “Marshall knew little German and tried to bluff it out as a French worker, but one of the Germans spoke better French and the game was up.”

Beyond fiction, older records of language profiling appear in Scripture. Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples was profiled as an illegal religious sectarian. Hiding in the darkness, Peter’s Galilean accent still revealed his association with Jesus, who came from the north: “After a little while, those standing there came up to Peter and said, ‘You really are one of them too—even your accent gives you away!’” (Matthew 26:73).

One of the oldest recorded and deadliest incidences of linguistic profiling happened at the border crossing of the Jordan River in present-day Jordan. As the retreating warriors of the tribe of Ephraim fled west to the river, the Gileadites, a rival clan, battled them at the crossing. However, since the pursuers could not physically identify and separate the Ephramite soldiers from its own troops, the commanders quickly instituted the first Department of Homeland Security force, along with one crucial interview question: “How do you say the word Shibboleth (meaning stream or flood)?” Although culturally related, the two tribes had developed separate dialects of Hebrew on either side of the Jordan, and each Ephramite revealed his true colors when he answered “Sibboleth” instead of “Shibboleth,” or more likely “Thibboleth.” In either case, 42,000 people were killed as the result of a single sound difference.

Like the Gileadites, the police in Arizona and Georgia face a similar dilemma. What does an illegal border-crosser look like? Ethnic profiling based upon physical characteristics is frowned upon. Many police rightly say that this practice creates mistrust between the officers and the communities they serve. Yet the new Arizona law, upheld by the Supreme Court, enables police to question people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. Even without ethnic profiling, at some point, even the most conscientious police officer may unknowingly use a Shibboleth accent to identify a suspect’s ethnicity and supposed country of origin, assuming that a speaker of English with a Spanish accent may be a first- generation Spanish speaker–and therefore potentially an illegal.

But, unlike the original Hebrew Shibboleth, Spanish-accented English does not pattern in a predictable way to reveal a speaker’s origins and knowledge of Spanish. This is due in part to incorrect correlations between accents and ethnic minorities, in part to mistaken ideas about the prevalence of Spanish speakers, and in part to the nature of community dialects.

It is human nature to create stereotypes that quickly identify potential threats to survival. The problem, of course, is that overgeneralizations can lead to mistaken conclusions. This includes language differences where, in the minds of listeners, language dialects serve as broad socio-economic and ethnic identity markers. Paired with Official English laws and practices, a frame is constructed for unconscious bias and ethnic profiling.

An illustrative study conducted by Donald Rubin and Kim Smith at the University of Georgia shows how closely stereotypes affect the way people perceive accents and communication across ethnic lines. Subjects were placed into two groups and told to listen to short academic lectures. Both groups heard the same recording of the lectures in Standard American English dialect. However, the picture of the “lecturer” shown to the two groups was different: a Caucasian and an Asian. The outcome of the study demonstrated the interference caused by ethnic stereotyping. Listeners concluded that the “Asian” lecturer had a foreign accent, even though they heard a standard native-speaker dialect of English. The more dramatic difference was that listeners of the “Asian” lecturer scored significantly lower on a short quiz over the science material, indicating that the there was interference with comprehension. Dr. Rosina Lippi-Green in her book English with an Accent concludes, “Thus it seems likely that preconceptions and fear are strong enough motivators to cause students to construct imaginary accents, and fictional communicative breakdowns.”

This reaction to ethnic dialects is so uniform that the opposite case also creates prejudice. Ironically, if listeners hear dialects that do not match the speaker’s racial or ethnic profile, the ethnic speaker is judged to be less trustworthy. Stanford Professor Cliff Nass explains how this dialect prejudice works: “that wouldn’t just apply to African Americans, that would apply to any ethnicities. People when they see a face – they bring to bear stereotypes of how that person should behave, think and speak. When those stereotypes run counter – people say there’s something wrong here. And that mistrust has consequences.”

Compounding the Spanish-accent Shibboleth error is a false generalization that almost everyone in a Hispanic community speaks Spanish. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 35 million Spanish speakers in the U.S., only ten percent speak Spanish as a first-language. While about 18 million people speak Spanish very well, over 20 million Spanish speakers also speak English “very well.” These numbers reflect the Spanish language use of new arrivals and the generational shift to English language use. As reported by Richard Alba, State University of New York at Albany, the number of Spanish speakers in communities decreases with each successive generation as children and grandchildren acquire English as their first language. Almost 80 percent of children of Spanish speakers use English mainly or only in their daily communication, and more than 90 percent of second generation Hispanics speak English well or very well.

To the ears of those outside of Spanish-speaking communities, the sounds of accented English can be signs of “bad pronunciation and grammar.” Those “non-English” sounds and syntax markers comprise community dialects (CD) spoken among people who live together and interact in the same geographical area. To its speakers, the dialect is a strong badge of personal identity and membership. Each CD is constructed by English speakers but with variations that reflect the linguistic choices of the community over time. Each community introduces some unique features into English such as sounds, vocabulary and intonation/stress patterns that differ from the dialect of Standard American English (SAE).

In Arizona and other southwestern states, Mexican-American communities speak the community dialect of Chicano English, a form of Mexican and Latino-influenced American English. In some areas, Chicano English varies from SAE by only a few sounds and grammar markers. For example, Sociolinguist Dr. Carmen Fought, in her book Language and Ethnicity, describes the substitution of a “long” i in the ending of progressive verbs such as “going,” pronounced “goEEng.” A consonant substitution takes the form of “t” or “d” for “th” in the words “thanks,” pronounced “tanks;” and “then” which is said as “den.” The grammar “errors” may include wrong uses of prepositions or verbs, as in the sentences “They got off (out of ) the car,” and “If I tell her to jump up, she’ll tell (ask) me how high.”

These small similarities give the Chicano English dialect a Spanish flavor that results in the false assumption for listeners that the speakers also know Spanish. Dr. Faught explains that “this effect has certainly contributed to the mistaken idea that people often have when they hear Chicano English; namely, that the speaker must be a native Spanish speaker who is just ‘learning English.’ In fact, these exact features are found among monolinguals with almost no knowledge of Spanish” (emphasis mine). It is very difficult to accurately identify non-native English speakers based upon the CD divergences heard in Chicano-accented English.

We need, I believe, to be aware of the influences of official English laws and practices, and our tendencies to link an accent to second language speaking abilities, and to immigrants. Official English policies and “home brewed” language accent tests decrease, rather than increase, our ability to communicate. Language patrol emphasizes language-purity, stigmatizes the speakers of Spanish and other languages, and limits the use of non-English in ways that weaken our communities.

Gregg Brekke taught English at Berea Christian School in Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia. His interests include intercultural communication, dialect profiling, and U.S. language policy. Gregg serves as an assistant professor of TESOL and Linguistics in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, Whitworth University.

Cheesesteak photo is from here.

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