Something to think about: English-only linguicism (by Jacqueline Peters)

“English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination.”

“Something to think about” was the subject line of an email that Megan Neely, the now former director of graduate studies at Duke University in North Carolina, sent her ethnic Chinese biostatistics graduate students. According to her email, these students had been “observed” speaking Chinese in the student lounge and study area. This deleterious action was reported to Neely by two self-appointed language sentinels who were faculty members. These faculty members went to Neely’s office to request photos of her biostatistics graduate students (Neely is also an assistant professor of biostatistics), in order to be able to recognize the students, who were not only speaking Chinese but speaking it LOUDLY (caps in original) and make note of their names so they could spot them if they came in for internships or master’s supervision.

The email that followed this request stated, in underlined text, that the faculty members were disappointed that the students were not taking advantage of their opportunity to improve their English language skills and, in a pique of linguistic paranoia, considered their speaking a language that only they could understand to be rude. Just in case the ungracious students didn’t understand Neely’s English-only message or the threat of future inopportune outcomes, she spelled it out, begging them to think about “unintended consequences” when they spoke their native language in the university, and she particularly reminded the second-year students that they would be job hunting very soon.

As is the case these days, such outrageous behaviour (Neely’s, not the students’) was debated on the internet and heated discussions ensued, many people noting that the students were on their own time during these conversations and reminding everyone that the US doesn’t actually have an official language in any case. Charges of racism were lobbed at Neely and her colleagues, especially when another international student noted that they were never chastised for speaking their first language on campus—that language being the ‘less foreign’ French.

This is an egregious case of linguicism. In the early 1990’s, Robert Phillipson defined linguicism as “linguistically related racism” (Phillipson, 1992). This form of racism has only recently been recognized as a form of discrimination.

Racism includes the idea that your own group is superior and therefore you have a ‘god-given’ right to control the ‘less-worthy.’ This control includes making decisions on where ‘the other’ can live, learn, work and of course, speak; not only where but what they can speak. Limiting or eliminating the language of newcomers is a skill that those in power have honed to a sharp edge over centuries. Throughout history, institutional racism has used tools from chastisement to corporal punishment, both forced and voluntary, on non-native speakers. These speakers, both language learners and those with more proficiency, are more often than not forbidden to speak their native tongues in both public and private spaces. The only difference is that the former are told overtly and the latter in subtler but just as persuasive ways. The students at Duke were not there to learn English but to study biostatistics, so imagine the attitude towards those international students who are in an English language learning program – where such restrictions are still considered beneficial to the learner.

Linguicism is alive and well, expressed unconsciously in the ways that international students are assessed, both orally and in writing, as the only accepted varieties are those considered to be the ‘standard’ varieties. Mahboob and Szenes state that these standards are based on “factors of whiteness, the middle-class and monolingual English speakers” (Mahboob & Szenes, 2010:326).  In interactions with learners, interlocutors construct identities for non-English speaking individuals that are based on linguistic proficiency, and the resulting determinations find the language learner lacking. These perceived insufficiencies lead in part to the racism we find in institutional systems, such as the educational system discussed earlier. Linguicism, like other -isms, allows the perpetrators to lay the blame on the speaker’s supposedly poor, in this case, linguistic abilities.

“(L)anguage is used as a mask to discriminate against minority communities” (Mahboob & Szenes, 2010:350). Assessments are just one way to guarantee that the status quo remains intact, that ‘the other’ distinguished by race, ethnicity or language can be held at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Institutions that wish to even the playing field must work with the non-English or non-standard English speakers and work towards “community empowerment and solutions” (Chen-Hayes et al. 1999:27).

Gatekeepers, however well-meaning, must be instructed in ways that allow non-standard speakers to enter.

Neely was asked to resign from her director position and the university has apologized to the students and requested that the office of institutional equity assess the biostatistics program.


Chen-Hayes, S. F., Chen, M. W., & Athar, N. (1999). Challenging linguicism: Action strategies for counselors and client-colleagues. ERIC.

Mahboob, A., & Szenes, E. (2010). Linguicism and racism in assessment practices in higher education. Linguistics and Human Sciences, 3(3), 325-354.

Phillipson, Robert. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. OUP.

Skutnabb‐Kangas, T. (1990). Legitimating or delegitimating new forms of racism—the role of researchers. Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, 11(1-2), 77-100.

Wang, Amy B. (Jan 28, 2019). Duke professor apologizes for telling Chinese Students to Speak English on Campus. Retrieved from

One thought on “Something to think about: English-only linguicism (by Jacqueline Peters)

  1. Hello there,
    The American Anthropology Association has a taskforce on language and social justice.
    The next AAA is in Vancouver (call for papers is open right now). The Taskforce is planning to organize a panel/roundtable, following what happened at Duke.
    Great blog. P

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *