A professor at Duke University in the United States has been relieved of her duties after she sent an incredibly racist email to her students. Megan Neely’s email directed ire at Chinese students in her classes for the apparently impermissible use of spoken Chinese at Duke University. The following is a screenshot of the email in question
For a professor, Megan Neely seems to be incredibly unaware of some very basic linguistic realities of the world she inhabits. Her parochial attitude suggests that Neely has more in common with a latter day advocate of America’s 1883 Chinese Exclusion Act than that of a supposedly learned scholar. The truth is that English is the world’s second most spoken language whilst Mandarin Chinese is the first. There are a total of 1.09 billion Chinese speakers on the planet contrasted with 983 million English speakers. That being said, there are 611 million non-native English speakers on the planet whilst there are ‘merely’ 193 million non-native Chinese speakers. This is why English is still considered the international language of commerce and even education, even though it is technically the world’s overall second most widely spoken language.
Looking at a side-by-side comparison of the US and China, China is home to 10 million English speakers whilst the US is home only to 3.4 million Chinese speakers (this statistic includes Mandarin as well as other Chinese languages). In terms of the relative percentage of English speakers in China to the overall population, less than 1% of all mainland Chinese speak English. Likewise, the percentage of total Chinese speakers in the US including those who do not speak Mandarin Chinese, is also under 1% of the total population.
Therefore, Nelly’s argument betrays an ignorance as to the facts. Due to the reality that the percentage of Mandarin speakers in the US is likely lower than the percentage of English speakers in China, owing to the fact that most older generations of Chinese immigrants to the US were not native Mandarin speakers, if anything, the chances of a person in the wider world encountering an English speaking Chinese are higher than the chances of a Chinese encountering a Mandarin Chinese speaking American.
Although being multilingual is an important and enriching experience for all, in dictatorially prohibiting Chinese students at Duke University from speaking in their native tongue, while implying that it was somehow devious to do so, Nelly was in fact cheating her native English speaking students out of the opportunity to learn Chinese through social interaction and immersion.
One of the things that racists continually misunderstand about immigrants who speak foreign languages (as opposed for example to a native Mandarin Chinese speaker from Singapore working or studying in China), is that immigrants tend to want nothing more than to learn the language of their new home and learn it to the highest possible level. The idea that somehow immigrants are content to maintain poor language skills in the mother tongue of their new country is little more than a projection of the colonial mentality that has been so prevalent in Europe and the United States.
The colonial mentality suggests that whilst all foreigners must learn English in order to accommodate American, British, Canadian or other broadly English speaking European tourists, that somehow immigrants to countries like the United States are happy or even proud not to have perfect spoken English. This could not be further from the truth and frankly, Megan Neely should know that if Chinese students are intelligent enough to engage in scholarly bio-statistics (Nelly’s own area of apparent expertise), they are also intelligent enough to learn a new language skill and likely want to and have done so since they elected to study abroad in an English speaking country.
Therefore, while someone losing a job is never something to celebrate, Nelly was clearly in the wrong line of work in the first place. This is because she fails to understand the basic qualities and characteristics of intelligent immigrants whilst also underestimating how her American born students could benefit from learning a new language through interaction with fellow students born in China.
If Nelly were to comment on the use of language at all, she would have been wise to adopt a win-win mentality which encouraged all of her students to learn as many languages from one another as possible, so that a multicultural and multilingual campus like that of Duke University could offer a more enlightening experience for all. Instead she saw fit to criticise Chinese students for speaking the most widely spoken language in the world as though she was a colonial master and her Chinese students were somehow of lesser value than her American ones. This shameful and disgusting attitude belongs to another century and certainly does not belong in any dignified educational environment.