Xenophobia, racism, linguistic profiling: the role of language

Post by Eva-Maria Schnelten, PhD student in Linguistics

In February this year, a mother and her 15-year-old child were attacked in the streets of Boston [1]. They were on their way home from dinner, in their own neighbourhood, speaking their home language Spanish.  Two women approached them, beat them, bit them, told them to speak English and go back to their own country. A crime based on xenophobia and racism. According to the attackers, based on fear.

This is not an isolated incident. This is unfortunately an all too common theme in today’s world. Many of you may have encountered uncomfortable, awkward situations based on the languages you speak or the accent you might have. Personally, I have encountered negative attitudes twice in recent years. On my way home one afternoon about two years ago on South Bridge in Edinburgh, when I was on the phone with my grandmother, a rather intoxicated man overheard me speaking German, stopped and screamed in my ear to ‘LEARN ENGLISH!”. On a different occasion, another passer-by overheard me speaking English on the street. After he listened in on me, he accused me of having a ‘suspicious accent’, asked where I was from and said he couldn’t wait for Brexit to happen, so that people like me have to leave the country.

Speaking a foreign language or having an accent often means exposing yourself. People might categorize you, and some may even feel offended by anything they don’t understand and respond with unjustified aggression. These aggressions reveal their instincts quite well. Immediate hostile reactions unmask their incapability to tolerate, accept and respect differences in others. Their attitudes towards you, the languages you speak, stems from their opinion, what they have heard, what they were taught or their own experiences.

Language attitudes are important. Language is weaponized and politicized. Language can be used as a tool for oppression, for exclusion, a tool that determines whether you belong. If you don’t conform, if your accent reveals a different world of foreign sounds, if your melody doesn’t match their rhythm, if your vocabulary bears the slightest trace of unfamiliarity – you stand out. Research (see e.g. Craft et al, 2020 [2] for an overview) has shown that people with foreign accents are less likely to be hired, or to be taken on as tenants. That practice is known as linguistic profiling.

According to Craft et al, every time you adapt your language to accomplish something, such as improving your accent for a better chance on the job market, it can already be described as linguistic discrimination. In his book Born A Crime [3] (I highly recommend it!), Trevor Noah says that “Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. […] My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, Noah learned several languages to blend in. Afrikaans to know the language of the oppressors, Zulu and Xhosa to be able to defend himself in the streets, and his mother made sure he spoke English to provide better opportunities for her son, given the uncertain future at the time. He used the languages he spoke to belong. He utilised languages as an instrument for defense, for a broken, racist, xenophobic system that excluded everyone that is not a part of the ‘tribe’. He wanted to belong. He changed in order to tick the boxes and fit in.

Although bilingualism is the norm for more than half the global population, monolingualism has become the default for many people, particularly in English-speaking countries. Bilingualism is viewed as a threat. Imagine the world if we continue traveling down the road of the two attackers from the incident described above. For just a brief, painful moment, envision a world where we find all people different from us suspicious or threatening. There is so much more that we, that our languages, have in common than what divides us.

In light of recent events, I believe it is now more important than ever to invite other people in. Let’s not use our languages to exclude others. Let’s make use of our language to learn, to speak, to listen and to sing. Different accents and foreign languages can teach us so much about each other. They can open up an entire world that we have yet to discover. We need to see bilingualism as an enrichment, an addition to our cultures. We need to use language as a tool to welcome each other in. Let us celebrate linguistic diversity. Let our languages unite against linguistic discrimination. Because we are better than this.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/29/us/east-boston-hate-crime-attack.html

[2] Craft, J. & Wright, K. & Weissler, R. & Queen, R. (2020). Language and Discrimination: Generating Meaning, Perceiving Identities, and Discriminating Outcomes. Annual Review of Linguistics. 6. 10.1146/annurev-linguistics-011718-011659.

[3] https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/537515/born-a-crime-by-trevor-noah/

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