On ‘Speaking American’

This past October, a New Jersey teacher was caught lashing out at one of her students for talking in Spanish. Upon realizing the language of a student’s conversation with a friend, she began yelling at her to “speak American.” Assuming that speaking English was the only way to be “American,” the teacher shamed the student, claiming that “soldiers were fighting” for this so-called mandate of being American. The boy stormed off, fed up. The classroom erupted—ballooning in exasperation. It required no translation.

In telling that student that the language her family spoke was not one that our country’s troops fight for, she undermined the reputation of our country as a solace for immigrants to pursue their American dream with nothing more than empty pockets and dedication. Instead, her charged response spoke to a larger tension—a fear of immigrants and their foreign languages being protected as equally as English-speaking Americans. Rather than allow that thought to burrow and take root, she chose to share with her classroom a xenophobia that has been rising as a new norm in society.

Fear was what took a seat in that classroom that day, demanding as much attention as little ‘ol things that normally occupied space there, like education, value-instillment, and individual growth. In spewing such negative—not to mention factually incorrect—rhetoric, this English teacher tried to caricature Americanism as not only a culture but apparently a language as well. She gave fear a podium to speak from.

Given that xenophobia (safeguarded through the “violent immigrant” trope) is being normalized more so than ever before with the current administration, the teacher must have felt that her response was warranted—acceptable even. The psychological impact of a Trump administration, in bringing crippling anxiety to Americans through policies undermining or attacking their identities, was shown to be well under way and finding a vessel through the teacher’s aplomb in speaking her mind. This type of rhetoric, however, is the exact opposite of what we need to be instilling in today’s youth through education.

As the sole source of authority in the classroom, a teacher has a disproportionate amount of power in swaying the perception of her students on a topic, particularly in regards to history and current events. Her words have the potential to shape the way students interact with one another, as their implicit biases force students to become tokenized, representatives of their ethnic groups for the class at large. In a diverse school, this could have had an egregious impact: studies have shown that the achievement gap across ethnic groups differs according to a teacher’s prejudiced expectations.


These students proceeded to organize a demonstration, protesting against her rhetoric and proudly waving the flags of their motherlands. They banded together a diverse set of countries, origins, and tongues to stand against the idea that speaking a language other than English is a threat to America.

Yet it is pitiful that students at this school had to remind others that the prosody of hate is understood in any language, and what makes our country unique is its ethnic and linguistic pluralism. Research has shown that a firm grip on bilingualism points to higher cognitive control and a better cognitive reserve (which, in other words, helps slow the onset of dementia symptoms). On the national scale, research has also proven that immigrants are crucial for certain labor which English is unnecessary for.

Although we have and continue to produce information showing that bilingualism in the classroom is unobtrusive, that the U.S. shouldn’t be a monolingual country, that the immigrant is not a “bad hombre,” the White House continues to belie these facts and try to incite fear that America is becoming a “polyglot boardinghouse”. This thinking is backwards and it is creeping into the next generation.

As many immigrant families continue to be hurt by the Trump administration, we as a country must remember the facts, lest our youth fall prey to false soundbites from the bully pulpit. And as children of immigrants and minority groups, we must never allow our cultures and our identities to be silenced by groundless stereotypes. “American,” Spanish, or any other language is a part of this country too.

Jessenia N. Class ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology concentrator in Quincy House.


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