We live in a culture and a world in which English is seen as the tentpole to the entire universe. It dominates spheres of social media, film, and internet interactions– if you don’t know at least a little bit of English, a whole world of knowledge and privilege are completely inaccessible to you. This Western leverage has manifested itself not in more diverse education, but the ugly opposite: A kind of linguistic elitism and exclusionism.
I recently watched an Indian film called English Vinglish where this idea plays out. The main character Shashi is a homemaker in India and runs a small sweet-making home business. She is constantly backhandedly belittled for not understanding English by her white-collar husband and academically accomplished high school daughter. She cycles between emotions of inferiority and inadequacy. Shashi gets the chance to visit New York City when her niece, who grew up in the US, is getting married here; and, in a fit of exasperation and impulse, Shashi secretly enrolls in an English class in the city before the wedding. She gains confidence and pride in herself, not just by learning English, but by defining herself apart from as well as with her family. This is a woman’s self-discovery of her worth, independence, and intelligence– but it is also a profound social commentary on the toxic way linguistic elitism has negatively affected non-Western countries.
There is a heartbreaking scene in which Shashi is trying to order some food when she first arrives at New York City. She is tripping over her words, unable to understand the pace of the words, and made to feel worthless and stupid. The impatience and maltreatment of the store clerk is explosively unjust– and why, because she cannot speak a language that is not her own? A language that she truly has no need to know? It would be an outrage to any American to even think of being disrespected in that way if we were in a foreign country.
(You can watch the clip of the scene below from YouTube)
Imagine a white man visiting a rural village in India, trying to order a coffee without speaking the local language. I’d assure you that it is highly unlikely that the store clerk would even think to treat him the way Shashi had been treated for being an influent foreigner in the movie.
It is important to realize the privilege with which we stand in this country, and to strip it down when we see ourselves misconstruing our undeserved advantages. Knowing English is not a mark of intelligence. Speaking English fluently is not a mark of education. Living in an English-speaking country does not make us better. And if we want to make all people feel welcome and included in our nation– people like Shashi, who have so much wisdom, culture, and art to offer us– then we must eradicate any notion of linguistic elitism.
If anything, I’m sure we can spare a few seconds while punching in someone’s order for coffee.