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The case for saying it as it is

May 1, 2020

The summer of 2012 was an extraordinary one for me. The birch trees of Northern California stood out against the fiery sunsets. The kids in my host family and I shared “High School Musical” references while “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen played in the background. As a rather visible foreigner to this country, my first innocent attempt at communication was muddled by an exchange with my host family when I asked where the “the rubbish bin” was—as opposed to the “trash can,” as they later corrected me. Or perhaps it was when I said “open the TV” and “close the lights” instead of  “turn on” and “turn off.”

I’m not alone in my attempt to self-regulate speech to fit a certain mold. International students code-switch to accommodate American English. But code-switching is not exclusively for international students—indeed, it is practiced by everyone.  There shouldn’t be a pretense that everyone speaks the same way across all social scenarios and functions—we change the way we talk to accommodate each and every audience in our life.

A unitary vision of the English language certainly brings a wide variety of benefits. The College would be able to maintain superb curricula, where scholarly works share standardization to make them accessible to readers and creative minds. In its historical significance to Western civilization and modern value in fields like technology, mass media, science and literature, English occupies a specific role in the mission of the College: to serve as an irreplaceable medium of communication in a community made up of scholars. Indeed, without English, the Bowdoin bubble would shatter into smithereens and with it any semblance of community cohesion.

But as the College heralds efforts to become more inclusive and diverse in its pedagogy and student life, the importance of respecting linguistic diversity within the Bowdoin community and giving voice to speakers who do not conform to the American vernacular is more important than ever. Language is a vessel for identity; it creates spaces and opportunities for communities to integrate or create distinct boundaries.

Currently, Bowdoin’s language use tends to coalesce to one prominent, recognized form of speech whose transgression affords you an instant reputation as someone with “an accent,” someone straying from the norm or someone who just needs to work on speaking. And the playing field of “normality” is not an equal one. While many take interest in scrutinizing accents and speech within the United States, be it midwestern or Californian, international variants of English command either an exoticized image of other parts of the West, or a knee-jerk reaction of “bad English” upon hearing them from persons of color.

For people whose native language is English, their linguistic identity is a matter of culture or self-expression. For people whose native language is not English, however, their assimilation into the Bowdoin community depends on their mastery of English, which is viewed as a matter of ability to speak like a “native speaker.” For international students, expanding English to accommodate their home culture can be seen as “bad English,” even when it gets the point across more naturally to intended audiences.

But barring any communication barriers, the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” English is a false one. If “bad” English corresponds to anything outside the standard English grammar and syntax, it fails to account for native speakers who mix their mother tongue with other languages like Chinese (in Singapore) or Hindi (in India). It ultimately comes down to the social privilege of whether you can speak and code-switch freely without the risk of being labeled as linguistically inept. Such labels may even be carried into the academic scene, where speakers of other varieties of English risk having their ideas discounted by how they verbalize them.

But Bowdoin is no stranger to language diversity. There is an incredible richness of language at the College. Be it vernaculars associated with different ethnic groups or geographic regions domestic and abroad, each Bowdoin student brings with them an incredible array of cultural heritage implicit in their use of language. Bowdoin should be a space where all these experiences are shared. There is a kaleidoscopic array of vernaculars, sociolects, idioms and expressions to correspond to one’s self-presentation to others, whether by gender, age or nationality. It is further complicated by little things, like favorite cultural icons, membership in the queer community, language used at Thanksgiving tables with extended families, passion in sports references or even particular subreddits they spend a lot of time on. Placing different ways of saying the same thing into hierarchies of “better” or “worse”—however tempting—is pointless.

There should be a time when people can talk with “auntie” instead of “Mrs. Robinson,” or ask someone to “close the lights” or use “rubbish bins” and not subscribe to trash cans without the fear of sounding lesser than because of the caricatures painted by a mass media defining the boundaries of acceptability.

Celebrating language diversity is the negation of a certain vision of reality: a static, affixed paradigm of assigning authoritative meanings to words and strict confines on how, what and when to say things as they are neatly collected in dictionaries and thesauruses. When uniformity is called for, using a universal form of speech facilitates information to reach beyond geography and personal identities. But when rigidity becomes entrenched, it is our responsibility to recognize its cause, and ask, with fervor, that orthodoxy stops here.


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One comment:

  1. Class of '21 says:

    Excellent article! It’s nice to see some sociolinguistic perspectives in the Orient. To those who are put off by “foreign” accents, please remember that English has roughly twice as many second-language speakers as it does first-language speakers (~800 and ~400 million, respectively) and that as a lingua franca it does not belong exclusively to those from countries where it is a majority native language. And have some empathy for second-language speakers who often learn a mixture of varieties at school and through exposure to popular culture from across the anglophone world. Quite frankly, most of us L1 English speakers are rather complacent about learning other languages and it’s unfair for us to maintain this double standard.

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