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linguicism in the news

intro updated March 2020

This page represents a “clearinghouse” of select instances of linguistic racism–aka linguistic chauvinism or linguicism–that have been reported in mass media. It is useful material for teachers looking to address the myriad ways that discrimination and bigotry manifest in classrooms and society.

Linguicism has been defined by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) as

the [i]deologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, regulate, and reproduce [social inequality]…on the basis of language. (p. 30)

Reflecting the taken-for-granted status of language in every day life, this is a topic that tends not to get much attention, contra racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, heteronormativity, etc. But as the examples from the news below indicate, language is also a prominent axis around which observable difference can be foregrounded, emphasized, demonized, and acted upon (or against), in ways that tie right in with racism.

For an example of significant relevance to ESL teachers: classroom language policies like “English-only.” While an English-only policy might be implemented with the best of intentions, it also brings with it the following implications. English-only policies:

  • disproportionately disadvantage (academically, socially) Youth of Color who speak English as a second language (L2);
  • valorize English and privilege its ‘native speakers’;
  • promote monolingualism and homogeneism;
  • promote linguistic nationalism;
  • do not facilitate L2 learning (though many believe it does);
  • have been marshalled by conservative, anti-immigrant groups like USEnglish and anti-bilingual education efforts in several states, including California, Arizona, and Massachusetts.

If you’re interested in this topic, here are some solid, accessible intros to….

What follows is a catalog of instances of linguistic discrimination in the world, which I have gathered via irreligous reading of the daily news.


(c) 2010-2020, Steven Talmy

Links updated: September 2020


  • January 2019, Ottawa: Simultaneous translators of Indigenous languages are at finally employed in Canadian Parliament, paving the way for (no doubt limited) use of Indigenous languages in the government domain. On the one hand this feels more symbolic, and perhaps tokenistic than substantive. On the other, it is a meaningful first step, part of a research-based language planning approach that institutionalizes minority languages in an effort to support and advance their development. It is part of an effort to ameliorate the legacy of linguistic genocide suffered by Indigenous communities in Canada, where most Indigenous languages are endangered.
  • October 2018, Virginia: More evidence of the anxiety that white Americans experience when confronted with Latinx folks speaking Spanish in the US, even when they’re 7 years old. Absolutely sickening.
  • June 2018, Toronto: A white woman engages in raciolinguistic harassment of Chinese workers at a fast food store. Note the certainty with which she says “it’s the law” to speak English in Canada (it isn’t, although English and French are Canada’s official languages).
  • January 2018, Maui: A warrant is issued for the arrest of a U Hawai’i professor who refuses to speak English in a courtroom, instead choosing to communicate in Hawaiian. Note to Judge Kobayashi: Hawaiian is one of the state’s official languages!
  • June 2017, USA: A chicken-skin inducing headline if there ever was one: The kids are alt-right. White children in schools are using the Cheeto in Chief’s words to harass and bully non-white children. Awful stuff here.
  • June 2017, New York: Announcer from opposing team says Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka should learn “baseball language” and not rely on an interpreter for mound conferences. Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in baseball; who will step up and break the “I’m a dumbass chauvinist about English barrier”?
  • June 2017, Philadephia: Mike Schmidt, a HOF third baseman, maintains that Venezuelan teammate Odubel Herrera is not the type of player to build a team around because of the “language barrier.” He continues the misplay: “Because of that, he can’t be a guy that would sit with four, five American players and talk about the game.” E5.
  • March 2017, Washington, DC: Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes on the “language orthodoxy” of LGBTQ, arguing it’s exclusionary. Good discussion starter here at the very least. And please, can we retire Orwell’s Politics of the English Language yet?
  • March 2017, UK: UK government is considering legislating use of English for Muslim sermons. I suggest the UK government consult a linguist. Or perhaps, an historian.
  • May 2016, California: Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas gives a commencement speech at Cal State Fullerton and for a brief portion of it, uses Spanish. She gets heckled and criticized for excluding the non-Spanish speakers in the audience.
  • May 2016, Texas: Houston Astros centerfielder Carlos Gómez strongly complains when a journalist quotes his L2 English word for word in an interview. Gómez states he felt “ridiculed”, “made fun of”,  and “insulted”, and ultimately receives an apology from the newspaper. Ironically, Gómez tweets that the article, though in “poor taste”, did not affect him: “I am confident and proud of who I am.” Can one not be proud of being an L2 learner and speaker?
  • April 2016, Seattle: City schools are under pressure to improve translation services for the parents of English language learners so that they can be fully engaged in their children’s English-medium schooling. This follows on a report last year that “interpretation [between parents and schools] is often provided by untrained district staff when it’s provided at all, and sometimes districts are so desperate they rely on the children to interpret for their parents”.
  • March 2016, New Mexico: The governor of New Mexico vetoes a bill to improve Spanish interpreter services in the state, effectively preventing access to legal services for a significant proportion of the New Mexico population. The veto came even though both the state Senate and House had passed the bill without opposition, and highlights the governor’s prior efforts to ban Spanish-speakers from serving on juries.
  • December 2015, Richmond, BC: A white, English-speaking condominium owner files a complaint alleging racial discrimination against his condominium council (aka “strata council”) because its monthly meeting was conducted entirely in Mandarin, thereby disenfranchising non-Mandarin-speaking condo owners. Says one homeowner: “English is one of the official languages in Canada. Richmond is a city in Canada. It is not suburb of Bejing or in Taiwan.” More here.
  • October 2015, Arizona: A former nursing student who sued an Arizona community college for allowing her classmates to use Spanish in the classroom–and then lost–is ordered to pay $111,000 for court costs. Links to earlier articles on this case are below (August 2015; July 2013).
  • September 2015, US: What would a US election cycle be without some uninformed alarmism about language? Because it features Republicans, there’s nothing all that surprising about it, except that the tenor sounds even more explicitly nativist than in the recent past. There’s English as characteristic of US-national identity (ignores the multilingual heritage, and complex polylingual present, of the US). English as uniter-in-chief (simple, intuitive, and thoroughly contradicted globally and historically). There’s speaking English in the US as “an example” (to whom one wonders).  There’s even the substitution of “Speak American” (evoking the Americanization campaigns of WWII). This piece picks up on the “racially driven” character of the issue. With over a year to go before the election, and with this bizarre cast of players, this only promises to get more cringe-worthy.
  • September 2015, Arizona: A Latina news anchor in Phoenix defends her pronunciation of Spanish words, stating that she says them “the way they are meant to be pronounced.” Her dignified response to linguistic intolerance is admirable, and it’s great that her station appears to back her, but why did this defense need to be articulated in the first place?
  • August 2015, Arizona: A nursing student who sued a Tucson community college for not protecting her rights as an English speaker by allowing Spanish language use in class (linked below, July 2013), loses her lawsuit, proving that even Arizona sometimes gets it right. The community college is requesting she pay over $300,000 in legal fees, as “a warning to those who launch ‘meritless’ lawsuits to make a political statement.” The verdict is being appealed… stay tuned.
  • March 2015, Twitter: My bizarre Twitter-spat with Rex Parker about Mock Asian and “shamwok shake”…
  • September 2014, Washington DC: Only half of ELLs graduate from DC schools, a proportion that is roughly comparable across North America.
  • April 2014, Richmond: Richmond, BC, just to the south of Vancouver, remains a remarkably contentious site of linguistic intolerance: every few months, an article appears in the Canadian media about the problems of Chinese-language advertising and signage there. The most recent one concerns — hold onto your national bilingual policy now — toothpaste ads. More here. Another — this one concerning a Chinese language ad offering immigrant settlement services — is here. And even more here and here.
  • Feb 2014, New York Times: Yesterday’s puzzle from the New York Times (6 Feb 2014, by Joe Krozel) featured a puzzle “theme” based on so-called phonetic pronunciations of words from Japanese. Examples: CARRYOKIE (karaoke; for the clue, “Give a Dust Bowl migrant a ride?”) , WASSOBBY (wasabi; for the clue “Blubbered?”), PSEUDOCOUP (sudoku; for the clue, “Imaginary overthrow of the government?”), and, perhaps most weirdly, ARIGOTTOW (arigato; for the clue, “What happened after Mr. Onassis contacted A.A.A.?”). Note that these are incorrect “phonetic” pronunciations: karaoke represented phonemically is /ka ra o ke/ not /kae ɹi o ki/ (the r in Japanese being a postalveolar flap akin to /d/ not alveolar approximant), wasabi is/wa sa bi/ not /wəz sa bi/ and so on… and these serve as the basis of what makes these clues “punny.” In other words, they’re punny by virtue of their links to Mock Asian. Perhaps the puzzle would have been better had the theme been frequent mispronunciations of Japanese by speakers of English. Then again… Worse: the comments on the Rex Parker crossword blog that I [edit: no longer] follow. Rex’s blog usually has insightful posts. Not in this case.
  • November 2013, Texas: A principal in a middle school attempts to ban Spanish in the school in order to “prevent disruptions.” Said principal is promptly placed on administrative leave, and later, dismissed.
  • July 2013, US: What’s wrong with the headline on this otherwise informative overview of Spanish-language TV viewership in the US?
  • July 2013, US: Yoenis Céspedes wins the MLB Home Run Derby and is interviewed afterward in Spanish by a bilingual ESPN reporter (who translates Céspedes’ remarks for English-speakers in the audience). People freak out.
  • June 2013, US: The US Supreme Court overturns a provision in the 1964 Voting Rights Act that allowed for instruments such as a “literacy test” to be administered to those attempting to register to vote. Here is an example of one such test from Louisiana.
  • June 2013, New York: A police officer is reprimanded for violating the NYPD’s English-only policy after exchanging greetings in Spanish with a colleague. She is one of at least nine officers sanctioned for speaking Spanish on the job. The National Latino Officers Association maintains that the NYPD’s English-only policy is racist and creates a hostile work environment. The NYPD defends itself with strange non-sequiturs: “We’re a 24/7 operation…. We should be speaking one voice, which is English.”
  • November 2012: Colorado: A high school principal who allows the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited in English, French, and Spanish as part of a “diversity” initiative is criticized as “un-American” for violating the sacred rule (??) of saying the Pledge in English.
  • September 2012, Nebraska: A woman fired for speaking Spanish at work loses her lawsuit against her employer, who instituted an English-only policy as a “quality-control issue because all the other workers spoke only English.”
  • February 2010, Philadelphia: A college student is arrested at the airport for carrying Arabic vocabulary cards he was going to study on his flight back to school in California.
  • More to come…

(c) 2010-2020, Steven Talmy

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