Hegde: Stop stifling language in the name of assimilation

A heated discussion about the Duke University professor telling students not to speak Chinese.


Suchaeta Hegde, Opinions Columnist

A personal conversation is exactly that. Personal. However, that is apparently not what Duke University Professor Megan Neely and some members of Duke faculty seem to think.

Neely, the graduate program director for the School of Medicine at Duke, sent out an email telling students to speak English in public places; Neely explained that members of the faculty had come forward to her saying that they were upset that “[the students speaking Chinese] were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.” The faculty members even went as far as to ask for the photos of biostatistics masters students as to try to pinpoint who exactly the “loud[ly] speaking” Chinese-speaking students were to note for when those students applied for internships or mentoring.

If students were conversing with each other, why should anyone else have to know what they are talking about and why should they have to be “practicing their English?” Besides the obvious racist undertones to this entire situation, there are larger misguided notions sprinkled throughout the email that are equally as concerning.

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What about these students conversing in a foreign language translates to poor work ethic? Even if they were being loud, that is not grounds for them to be excluded from consideration for opportunities that could impact their careers. This brings up another important point: speaking or not speaking another language does not hinder a person’s ability in a non-language related skill. The best biostatistics masters students should not have to speak perfect English at all times for a faculty member to see that they have talent in the classroom.

Language is a skill that can sometimes feel like a double-edged sword. Multilingual abilities always seem like a bonus on a résumé, but I have also seen the dirty looks given by bystanders when people are chattering away in foreign languages. The words of Neeley and the beliefs of the faculty make it seem like bilingualism — and on a larger scale, diversity — is only acceptable when it is on paper and is found obnoxious when it shows itself in other places.

Some may argue that communication is one of the most important parts of a successful employee, so Neely was making a point; while it is true that communication skills are beneficial, why are faculty members assuming that these students can’t speak English well just because of them speaking Chinese in an outside setting? That logic alone shows that many illogical presumptions were made in this situation.

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The part of this that perhaps frustrates me the most is the double standard. I don’t think that the faculty members, if they traveled to work in a foreign country or if they were required to speak a second language during work, would completely switch over to their second language — especially if, like the students that were so unfairly judged, they were conversing amongst each other casually. In the end, I just believe that after long days overflowing with projects and classes, it is a basic right for students to have conversations in whatever language they so desire.