“Speak in English!”: Inventing ‘everyday’ language policies

by Karen Forbes

When we think about language policies we tend to think big. We might think of national mandates which determine the official language(s) of a country, or policies for education which specify the medium of instruction in state schools. While such policies will undoubtedly influence our experience of living, working or studying in a particular country, the language practices that each individual chooses to follow (or perhaps more controversially, chooses to impose on others) reflect much deeper ideologies. Recently I have come across several examples that have made me reflect on these ‘everyday language policies’ and particularly on what they might represent. Here are a few examples…

In January 2019 an email sent by a faculty member at Duke University to a group of Masters students went viral on social media. The author of the email informed students that two of her colleagues had approached her to complain about students speaking Chinese ‘very loudly’ in the student lounge. They wanted the students’ names so they could remember them if they later applied for an internship or master’s project. The email advised students to keep these ‘unintended consequences in mind’ and encouraged them to use English ‘100% of the time’. In response to this, a senior member of the university confirmed that there was absolutely no restriction or limitation on language use on campus, yet this raises the question of why two faculty members (working in a self-proclaimed ‘global university’) felt the need to enforce an ‘English-only’ policy in social spaces and, not only that, but to penalise students for using their mother tongue in these situations.

Similar discourses are evident in the UK. I spoke recently to a secondary school student who had moved to England from Lithuania. He talked about his experiences of settling in to a new school where there were only a small number of other Lithuanian speakers. He spoke of his confusion around the use of his first language in school, and said that while some teachers actively encouraged this (e.g. using a bilingual dictionary in lessons), he had also been ‘told-off’ for speaking to a friend in Lithuanian while on the sports field at break time. We also hear increasingly frequently of people being asked to ‘speak English’ in public spaces. One woman, for example, was speaking to her young daughter in a shop in Wales and was confronted by a stranger who asked her to stop speaking ‘foreign muck’ (she then calmly informed her accuser that she had actually been speaking Welsh!)

These are only three isolated examples, but I imagine they are sadly not uncommon incidents in Anglophone countries (and I expect that similar is true in other countries). As a linguist, my first reaction to each of these scenarios is one of indignation – what right does anyone have to impose their own monolingual, ‘English-only’ language policy on individuals having a personal conversation in a public space? But if we want to attempt to shift such mind-sets, we need to take a moment to try to understand where they might come from. For some, insisting on the use of a common language may be a well-intentioned suggestion to create a sense of community and encourage inclusion, however for others it may represent a fear of the unknown, a fear of being talked about or feeling like a ‘foreigner’ in their own country. If the latter is true, then how can we assuage these fears and concerns? Perhaps this is a conversation we need to have more openly.

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