It was the middle of summer, and my 10-year-old son had spent most days playing hours of Fortnite, an incredibly popular online video game. I don’t like so much screen time, but I was busy dealing with my other son’s urgent health issues: driving to multiple appointments a day and spending hours on the phone with our insurance company.
Truthfully, my 10-year-old’s love of multiplayer video games was helping me survive this very difficult summer. On this particular day, I kept an ear out as he played Fortnite in the other room. He coordinated with other players on his team (“There are people at 300!”) and helped his teammates (“I’ll go over and revive him.”). As the game’s intensity built, my son’s voice became louder. I heard him bang on the desk, and then he said into his microphone, “Speak English!”
I ran into the room and told him to never say that to anyone ever again. But I knew that wasn’t enough. I had to take a hard look at how a child of mine could have uttered those words in the first place.
Our family is multilingual and multicultural. My husband is from Italy, and in our house English and Italian intermingle easily. Furthermore, I have taught Spanish for nearly three decades, and I love working in the Foreign Languages Building, where I hear the music of languages I know — and others I don’t — every day.
My eldest daughter has learned at least a little of five languages, and she is just finishing up a year abroad in Nagoya, Japan. My other two sons understand Italian (though they reply in English) and have studied Spanish at school. So when my youngest son yelled, “Speak English!” to a stranger, I took it personally.
Moreover, my academic career focuses on languages and social justice. My most popular course is called Spanish in the Community, and each week my students spend two hours in class and two hours volunteering in organizations that serve our local Latino immigrant community. In class, I dispel myths about immigrants; in the community, students see for themselves how important all languages are for self expression and for access to important information. I also teach a course about social entrepreneurship that focuses on creating linguistically and culturally appropriate programming in nonprofits. And, yes, those courses are taught entirely in Spanish.
Unfortunately, viral videos of people in the United States yelling at Spanish speakers to “Speak English!” are plentiful. Every semester I use a fresh batch of those videos to teach my students about language ideologies: our often unconscious beliefs and values regarding languages. Our country’s dominant language ideology ― that being a monolingual English speaker is normal and good ― doesn’t describe the reality of our multilingual world, but it does fuel the aggression behind the shouts to “Speak English!”
Needless to say, hearing my own son say that phrase devastated me.
I had to be honest with myself. I teach students to analyze the biases behind the “language police” in those viral videos, but my son doesn’t attend my classes. On Facebook I post commentary about those videos and other examples of language discrimination, but my 10-year-old isn’t on Facebook.
My son is online a lot, though, playing Fortnite. As he explained, you’re assigned a server to play on based on your time zone, and there are a lot of Spanish speakers on his server. In normal games, Spanish and English speakers might play on the same team. I asked him to describe how he usually handles the language differences.
“Well, they always say, ‘Hola, ¿cómo estás?,’” my son told me, “and then I say, ‘Bien.’” He also noted that they say a lot of Fortnite terms, like “revive,” in English, and that he could understand some of the simple words they use in Spanish. To me, Fortnite sounded like a perfect language-learning sandbox, yet my son had just shouted the paradigmatic phrase of the English language police.
I knew I had to tackle my son’s ugly command straight on, and in terms a 10-year-old could comprehend. After I gathered my thoughts, we went for a car ride. As I talked from the driver’s seat to the backseat where he was buckled in, I kept my points brief and simple.
“The message outside our home that English is the only 'right' language for Americans was so strong and ubiquitous that it had found footing in my son’s mind and in his words. I realized that I had to explicitly counteract that message immediately and at frequent intervals in the future.”
First, I explained that “Speak English!” is usually said as an insult and to portray people who speak other languages as non-American, even though the United States does not have an official language. It is not a request to find a way to communicate with the other person, but rather an attempt to assert dominance and authority.
Second, I offered scripts of better ways to communicate. “Do you speak English?” opens a door instead of slamming it in the other person’s face. “Could we use English together?” is another polite way to search for common ground. Languages aren’t scary, foreign systems; they’re fun, and it’s not difficult to learn a few phrases. So why not use some very simple Spanish by asking ”¿Hablas inglés?” or “¿Podemos hablar inglés?” Furthermore, “I am working on my Spanish, but could we speak English for now?” acknowledges that the responsibility of learning other languages isn’t just on non-English speakers.
“But they don’t speak English,” my son told me.
“How do you know?” I asked. “Maybe they speak Spanish and English. Maybe they don’t, but maybe they do. For example, I am speaking to you in English right now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also speak Spanish and Italian.” We all tend to see the world through our own experiences, and only 21% of households in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home. People who communicate with just one language can forget (or ignore) that multilingual people decide which of their languages to speak ― or not to speak.
Fourth, I reminded my son that respect for languages and the people who speak them is one of our family’s core values. Our home bursts with conversations, books, music and friends of many languages. I had assumed that was enough, that it was obvious. Instead, the message outside our home that English is the only “right” language for Americans was so strong and ubiquitous that it had found footing in my son’s mind and in his words. I realized that I had to explicitly counteract that message immediately and at frequent intervals in the future.
Finally, I talked to my 10-year-old about the connections between language, racism and privilege. Because he only saw the other Fortnite player’s avatar, my son didn’t see his race. However, languages are racialized, meaning that people associate, often unconsciously, certain languages with certain races. “Speak English!” is almost always shouted at people of color, whereas people are often impressed that I, a white woman, am fluent in multiple languages. In addition, Americans tend to perceive some European languages as “prestigious,” while diminishing the value of languages from other continents and of indigenous peoples.
Truthfully, not everything from our conversation stayed with my son. A few weeks after it happened, I checked in with him. He told me that saying “Speak Spanish!” was rude and that people can speak whatever language they want. That’s okay. I will continue to bring up the subject, gradually emphasizing the more nuanced and abstract concepts.
Unfortunately, I will have plenty of opportunities to bring this up in conversation with my son. “Speak English!” videos go viral regularly, and too often the aggressive rhetoric is accompanied by physical violence. When President Trump tweets that people of color should “go back” to other countries and the crowd at his rally chants “Send her back,” the words are slightly different, but the sentiment and threat of violence are the same. That is why I spoke up so quickly with my son and why I will continue to speak out in my classes and with everyone.
It’s only a game, some might say about my son’s outburst while playing Fortnite. But all of us, including video game players, need to think carefully about the power of our unconscious ideas about languages. In his zeal to win, my son hurled a command to “Speak English!” at a teammate that could be justifiably construed as hateful ― even though he may not have understood it or intended it to come across in that manner ― and thereby perpetuated a reductive and racist language ideology.
Thankfully it wasn’t captured on video and posted online, but he used the same phrase and tone as the people in the viral videos. When we treat languages other than English — and the people who speak them — as problems, everyone loses.
Annie Abbott is a professor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Spanish textbooks, including Dia a dia: De lo personal a lo profesional.