Shh – Don’t Say ‘Speak American’ (Out Loud)

shh3

Image credit: Christian V.

There was justified outcry this week when a New Jersey teacher reprimanded students for speaking Spanish in class. She demanded the students speak “American,” arguing that U.S. troops are “not fighting for your right to speak Spanish.”

The students staged a walk-out. There have been calls for the teacher to be censured and dismissed. These outcomes are necessary, but we must also recognize that the teacher’s rant accurately named aloud what most U.S. schools impose on students every day.

The vast majority of students in the U.S. are spoken to, taught, and assessed exclusively in English, regardless of whether English is the language through which they learn best. Whether these English-Only restrictions are actual policy, or simply monolingual inertia, students across the country are forced to “speak American” every day without anyone having to name it out loud.

Imagine, if you will, a substitute teacher walking into a U.S. classroom filled with monolingual English-speakers, then proceeding to teach a math lesson in Portuguese. The students would look at each other, make halting attempts to “speak American” to the teacher, then one of them would inevitably walk out to tell the principal they “can’t understand” the teacher. In the meantime, the teacher would give students a math test (in Portuguese) which they’d all fail, triggering a slew of phone calls home (also in Portuguese) informing parents their students can’t graduate because they don’t know math.

Let’s be real here. Parents would riot. Students would walk out. The teacher would be fired and policies would be put in place to make sure such a linguistic calamity never happens again.

The sad part is, such policies already exist—to accommodate monolingualism. We have an entire system in place that makes sure monolingual English-speakers never have to be exposed to a text, language, or even an “accent” they don’t understand, outside of optional “foreign” language classes. We maintain an English-Only system as the unquestioned norm, regardless of how egregiously this monolingual coddling fails to reflect the multilingual realities students will encounter outside of school.

Let’s be clear—any teacher who goes on a racist rant against their students’ language practices shouldn’t be within a mile of a classroom. But this rant was a mirror held up to a system in which nearly all of us demand our students “speak American.”

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