To Speak or not to Speak?

Note: These two articles are the product of a little intra-section competition. The editor, Agus Tornabene, wrote an article advocating for non-native English speakers to speak only English in public places, while Beau Adams advocated for the status-quo. The editor did not edit Beau Adam’s article, instead, the Opinion staff edited it. 

In Your Best Interest

Agus Tornabene ’19

Over the summer, I visited China for a community service project. We worked from 8 to 4 every day, which left us not only tired but also with addled brains. Sweltering in the heat and humidity of the Chinese summer one day, after having tried to teach 3rd and 4th graders how to play basketball, -which is no small feat given that I have no idea how to play it myself- I was asked what the Spanish word for toilet was. Spanish being my native language, everybody in the room assumed that I would immediately come up with the answer. Much to my chagrin, and my companion’s bemusement, it took me about 45 seconds to answer “inodoro.” The episode was scary at the time because it was just one in a series of incidents during which I could not remember basic words in my native language.  I didn’t have to search long for a reason: I simply had not been speaking Spanish that much while at Woodberry, and regardless of my status as a native speaker, practice is vital to the use of a language. Why I am telling this long, meandering story is because, after the initial freak-out, I realized that this wasn’t that big of a deal. I had just forgotten how to say toilet in Spanish, and it took me no more than 45 seconds to remember it.

I am telling this story not to bore you ,I am not Hillary Clinton giving a speech after all, but to illustrate a point: If non-native English speakers at Woodberry were to stop speaking their native language in public, there would be no risk of them forgetting it. Despite not speaking your language in public, you would still call your family in your native language, text your friends in your native language, probably read books in your native language, and watch movies and shows in your native language, all of which amounts to quite a bit of practice.

It may have dawned on five or six minds that I think non-native English speakers should not speak their native language in public (dining hall, outside, athletic fields, library). My reasoning is simple, it is in their best interest. One of the reasons I came to study in the US is because I wanted to improve my English, and I gather that you’d find that many international students have similar reasons for coming here. The reality is that to drastically improve your language skills, you need to speak your native language as little as possible. You also need to make mistakes and be made fun of for those mistakes. My dad learned Spanish to the point where customs agents didn’t believe him when he said he was American by hanging out at a gas station in Buenos Aires and being made fun of for every little mistake he made. Although a little bit sad, it is true that you tend to remember the times you were embarrassed or angry more than other times; hence that almost everybody’s first memory is a traumatic one. If you want to learn English, the first thing you should do is speak it as much as possible and then not take it personally when somebody corrects your mistakes.

Speaking a language different to the language spoken by the majority of people in a social setting is simply rude. I don’t care what kind of social norms there are between non-native speakers (as I understand it, it is considered strange for a Chinese student to speak to another in English), you should not be speaking your language when most of the people at the table are English speakers. Imagine how you would feel, if you were having dinner with somebody and they suddenly started speaking their native language to one of their friends, excluding you from the conversation. This isn’t a matter of keeping your cultural heritage, or free speech or whichever excuse you want to come up with, it is a matter of good manners.

That being said, a policy in the blue book to enforce this would be ill-advised. Not only would it galvanize most non-native English speakers into opposing the rule, it would also send the wrong message. We should be speaking English in public spaces not because the school says so, but because it is in our best interest.

Certain Freedoms

Beau Adams ’19

In recent years, Woodberry has attracted students from all corners of the world. As a result, some of these students do not speak English as their first language. However, many domestic students, think these students should only speak English when they are in public places like classrooms or the dining hall. There are two blatant problems with this rule: the clear violation of freedom of speech, and the negative implications of not speaking a language.

The Constitution, on which our founding fathers built this great country, states that people have the right to express their opinions freely. The only exception to that rule is when life or property is at risk. For example, no one can shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire because that would create unnecessary chaos. However, there are no limitations on what language can be spoken. America’s official language is English because of our history with the British Empire. If someone wanted to they could speak before Congress in Hebrew, and the only reason he wouldn’t do that is that his point would not be understood. Schools are no different, I could answer every question in Mr. Reid’s class in Hebrew; however, it is unlikely that I would be understood. So international students should be allowed to speak whatever language, their only issue would be other people understanding them.

If you don’t practice a skill for a long time, you begin to forget how to do it. As odd as it seems, language is a skill. It just happens to be a skill that everyone uses every day. From personal experience, I know that not speaking a language for weeks leads to losing that skill. So when international students can’t speak their first language in public, they could go months without practicing. This limited practice leads to loss of fluency, and over the course of a school year, they could lose many of their language skills. This may not seem so bad to us Americans because many of us have never met someone who speaks absolutely no English. However, most people on the planet don’t speak English, especially the older generation. So when these international students go home, they are not going to have a good time trying to understand what their parents are saying. If these international students only understand half of what their parents say, they are bound to upset and frustrate their parents, because native speakers often get frustrated when trying to talk to newer and inexperienced speakers. Also, the parents would get frustrated at Woodberry, because the school’s unconstitutional rule about foreign languages ruined their child’s fluency. So in short if students forget how to speak their first language then there is going to be chaos when they return home.

There are many students who think that international students should not use their first language in public. Some students argue that the international students are wasting their time if they aren’t going to bother trying to learn English. The problem with this is they are trying, and for some students, they have only taken a year or two of English before Woodberry. Since they spend every class and most of practice speaking their second language, it’s safe to say they are definitely trying.

In the end, international students should be allowed to speak their mother tongue in public places. They have the constitutional right to do so laid out by the Founding Fathers we hold so dear, and they need to keep this skill so that when they get home, they can still communicate with their families.


The views expressed in this article do not, in any way, represent the views of the editorial board, our faculty adviser, Mr. Guldin, nor the opinion of The Oracle as a whole.

Categories: Opinion

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