Language · Politics

Hicks and Yankees and the Fuzzy Standard of “English Proficiency”

Last week, CNN’s  Jim Acosta and White House advisor Stephen Miller engaged in a heated exchange over a newly proposed immigration policy that would institute a merit-based system for granting entry into the U.S., using English proficiency as one of several measures. Acosta suggested that the policy would advantage people from English-speaking countries like Britain and Australia. Miller called his comment “ignorant,” asserting that these countries are not the only places in the world where English is spoken. Conservative media sites claimed that Miller “wrecked” Acosta in the exchange. Liberal sites attacked Miller’s response as flawed and missing the point.

Whoever gets credit for “winning,” Acosta’s inquiry and Miller’s response raise important questions about the fairness of English proficiency as an expectation for people immigrating into the U.S.

I grew up in California but spent a couple of weeks most summers in North Carolina, visiting my mother’s family. My favorite memory from these visits is sitting on my great grandmother’s screened-in porch where the family gathered on Sunday evenings. I ate cake and listened to stories and tried, awkwardly and flounderingly, to fit in as one of them. During one such gathering, my mother’s aunt turned to me and said, “You talk like a Yankee.” I didn’t know what a Yankee was, and evidently neither did she, but I knew what she meant: you don’t talk like us. It was true. And how I talked was the clearest marker that I wasn’t a full-fledged member of that family community. They loved my sister and me because we were my mother’s children, but we were obviously outsiders. Anyone who has ever experienced being the one who talks differently understands the role that language plays in signaling to others that we either belong or don’t belong.

My aunt’s comment didn’t feel insulting to me because I actually took a great deal of pride in my use of language. I’m not sure how my mother became the master of school-based English that she is, but she passed it on to me, early and with great fervor. There was no “transitional spelling” in our house. If I spelled a word wrong, she corrected it and I fixed it. I learned about the past perfect tense from a Winnie the Pooh Golden Book when I pointed out “had had,” thinking the duplication was a misprint, and in turn received a grammar lesson on the function of the auxiliary “had” in positioning an event as prior to another past event. I knew the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and even in casual conversation with other children, I always put “I” in the subject position and “me” in the object position. I was never a stand-out in school, except in grammar lessons. During those 20 minutes of the school day, thanks to my mother, I was unmatched. In the spring of my senior year in high school, I asked one of my English teachers for feedback on my college application essay. As he worked up to telling me the essay was dull and essentially devoid of substance, he said, “I’m struck by how…correct…it is.”

“Correctness” became critically important to me, and I carried that through my teaching career without ever reflecting on my tendency to use my students’ English conventions as a measure of their academic ability. I couldn’t see (or didn’t look) past deviations from standard sentence structure, punctuation, or spelling to engage with students’ ideas. Conversely, a paper that grammatically and mechanically matched my expectations conjured in my mind an intelligent and thoughtful student. From my first glance at the paper, the ideas had credibility for me, and I responded differently, more respectfully, more helpfully. The students who came to my class with a strong command of school-based English received different -and higher quality- instruction in my classroom. Because those students were most often white and had parents who were highly educated professionals, my disparate treatment of students based on their language use was both racist and classist. I privileged my already-privileged students and dismissed those who most needed to have their ideas recognized and valued -and at the same time very likely missed many opportunities to help develop brilliant and original ideas. Even though at that time my students all used English easily and could communicate whatever they wanted or needed to communicate in the language, I treated them differently if their English didn’t match the standard I had adopted.

I learned as an adult -after my pronoun usage was firmly cemented in place -that my mother was self-conscious of her North Carolina dialect when she moved to California in the 1960s. She worried that she sounded, as she put it, “like a hick.” So she fixed it. Over time, she modified her language use so that, for as long as I can remember, traces of “Southern” dialect only emerge when she talks to her family or tells stories about them. My mother adopted the language practices of her new community, and perhaps that is to be expected, but I wonder how it might have been different if she hadn’t felt that her own language held lower status than the language of her new coworkers and neighbors and in-laws. She was certainly “proficient” in English. It was her first and only language. But compared to the person sitting next to her in church, or the bank teller at the next window, might she have been regarded as less proficient, because her language didn’t match the standard in that community? Might her ideas have been dismissed more easily in a business meeting if she had used the language of her home community -even if her ideas held equal merit?

This is why Jim Acosta’s question was not nearly as absurd as Miller made it sound. Of course English is spoken in many countries other than England and Australia. But there are many, many varieties of English being spoken both in this country and around the world. Do we view them all as equal? Or do some varieties hold higher status, so that people who speak those higher-status varieties will be deemed more highly “proficient” than those who speak other varieties? Won’t those people probably be white? Won’t they probably be more like “us”?

Setting aside the deeply flawed assumptions that underlie the belief that everyone in this country should speak English in the first place, we need to explore honestly what counts as proficiency in English, and how race and class play into those assessments. Language is a powerful symbol of belonging, and whether or not people’s language passes the test depends on who is doing the evaluating. It is not an objective measure, and if we’re not very careful, it will be a dangerous one.