Why the Revolution will not be English-only
By Kimberly Leung, Managing Attorney at the Chinese American Service League and CARPLS Professionals Board member
You can be really good at something but not love it. My English is exceptional. When I became Editor-in-Chief of my college newspaper, my mom said, “That’s impressive.” She was underscoring the fact that I am the daughter of immigrants and grew up in a limited English-speaking household. I remember this because my mom giving a compliment is like Mercury’s solar transit – I get one every ten years.
Within the first chapter of Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s debut book, The Undocumented Americans, she hits you with this: “I think every immigrant in this country knows that you can eat English and digest it so well that you shit it out, and to some people, you will still not speak English.” Villavicencio described an incident where she was on a bus in Queens when a passerby looked in her direction and said, “I wish these people would just learn English.” At the time, Villavicencio was not speaking, in any language. She was holding a book, in English, and was at home for the summer after her freshman year at Harvard, where she would later win a writing award named after an Eighteenth century American transcendentalist.
Growing up in Michigan, I had similar experiences of getting unsolicited comments about the way I do or don’t speak English. It can be hard to say why you are good at something. But I wonder if my talent resulted from feeling the need to prove myself, or from the chip on my shoulder that grew out of watching the adults in my life get mocked by strangers for not speaking “good English.”
In contrast to my English, my Cantonese is rough around the edges. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit, during what was considered the height of the English-only movement. I am also the youngest of four, meaning, the people who I ate, played and fought with in my childhood were English speakers. The fact that I can speak Cantonese is a testament to my relationship with my maternal grandmother.
My popo was my caretaker, cheerleader, and confidant – she is my moon, my sun and all my stars. Popo only spoke Cantonese. She never learned English during the 35 years she was in the States. Though I think that makes her a true rebel, it is likely that the task of learning a new language at age sixty intimidated her, and caretaking for her grandchildren while her own children were working seven days a week left her with insufficient bandwidth to take on a foreign language.
Words of affirmation was one of my Popo’s dominant love languages. She gave me affectionate nicknames. She sung my praises. She captivated me with Chinese folklores. She taught me to appreciate gossip. She listened to me when I was hot with tears after getting into fights with my sisters. This is how I learned to speak Cantonese.
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For many of us Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders children of immigrants, we hold our relationship with our elders in high esteem. Many of us grew up in multi-generational households. Many of us also have a visceral understanding of the heartbreak R.O. Kwon described in her open letter to Asian American women following the Atlanta spa shooting. The rise in Anti-AAPI hate crimes has thrown us into a prolonged state of mourning.
When we hear about a new incident of hatred, we don’t just see another crime victim. We see images of ourselves, our families. I hesitate in speaking for a collective or claiming shared experiences – I know how it feels to be involuntarily thrown into a group and turned invisible. I don’t know or claim to know the victims and survivors I read about in the news, but they are not strangers.
Jenny Choi wrote about her experience listening to the audio recording of one of the 911 calls from the Atlanta spa shooting. She found familiarity in the woman’s voice – “turning hard, Korean corners on hanging consonants like ‘d’ in the word ‘gold’.” It brought about images of her mother.
For me, when I listen to that recording, I recognize the “please” and “thank you” that follow the woman’s pleas for help—those are the familiar mannerisms of someone whose American journey has conditioned her to believe that she is entitled to nothing.
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On May 20, 2021, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. It is a welcome first step. Indeed, after former President Trump paraded the term “Chinese Flu,” this country needed our new leader and lawmakers to be clear and explicit that hate has no place in America.
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is significant—impressive even—in its resolve; but, with its sole focus on law enforcement agencies, it is lacking in its solution. The Act brings attention to the intersecting barriers faced by AAPI older adults. The act states:
“More than 1,900,000 Asian-American and Pacific Islander older adults, particularly those older adults who are recent immigrants or have limited English proficiency, may face even greater challenges in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, including discrimination, economic insecurity, and language isolation.”
While recognizing that more needs to be done to increase language access, the Act’s solution is limited to incentivizing law enforcement agencies to establish online hate crime and incident reporting “in multiple languages as determined by the Attorney General.”
Effectively addressing anti-AAPI hate crimes requires us to bring front and center the issue of language access, for the reasons succinctly expressed by Joon Bang, CEO of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging: “Language is the embodiment of culture, history, and identity. In its purest form, language is power.” AAPIs represent over 100 spoken languages. About 60 percent of Asian older adults are limited English proficient. Isolation and lack of access is central to the lived experiences of first-generation immigrants and the limited English proficient population across the United States.
I echo Yale law student Jenny Choi’s call for a full-fledged language access revolution. This revolution would take lesson and leadership from the grassroots and community-based organizations who have long been doing this advocacy and providing direct services to communities in people’s preferred languages. This revolution would centralize coalition building with disability rights advocates and scholars, indigenous peoples, language interpreters and other allies who are intimately aware of what is to gain when we bring our non-English speaking community members into the fold and what we lose when they are excluded from the conversation.
This revolution would normalize multilingual education. It would see the repeal of state laws designating English as the only official language, which are currently on the books in 30 states. This revolution would not pit or privilege one language over another. It would not marginalize languages and dialects most vulnerable to extinction. This revolution would be informed by our nation’s rich linguistic history, and would see to the constitutional right to language access.
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I never expected to use Cantonese in my profession. In fact, it would have been unimaginable to me in my youth when speaking Chinese was popularly perceived as an impairment or impracticality. But 2020 was a year full of the unexpected. In the middle of the pandemic, I found myself confronting questions that I otherwise had a habit of pushing aside: Am I doing what I love? Am I making the kind of impact that I want to? The answers to those questions led me to my current position at the Chinese American Service League (CASL), where I serve as Managing Attorney for a legal aid program located at the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown.
Over 95 percent of CASL’s Legal Services clients have limited English proficiency. With CASL’s multilingual staff and our volunteer interpreters, we are able to serve all our clients in their preferred languages. An effective client-attorney relationship is built on trust and communication, and I cannot stress the importance of investing in language access within legal aid. It is not sufficient for legal aid organizations and government agencies to contract with language line companies. Legal professionals need training on how to effectively work with interpreters.
In January of 2021, CASL Legal Services began collecting information regarding clients’ experiences with hate crimes and incidents as part of a larger effort to fill the gap in AAPI data. In engaging with the community through these surveys, I have heard from clients who were operating under the belief that access to 911 and emergency services is only for English speakers, while other clients simply felt discouraged from contacting law enforcement due to language barriers. When I ask whether they have been impacted by a hate crime, many clients find themselves unable to answer because they are unsure as to what constitutes as a hate crime. These conversations underscore the fact that much more needs to be done to increase access to information for AAPI communities.
CASL Legal Services created the Hate Crimes Fact Sheet, a resource that provides basic and critical information, including how to report to law enforcement and where to go for support services. In addition to publishing this in Chinese, we are working on translating the fact sheet to additional languages.
Cantonese is my love language, and it has been deeply rewarding to use it to bring visibility to people who deserve to be seen. This is my popo’s gift to me and her legacy. At one point, I imagined that when my popo died, I would have little reason to use the language anymore and it would fade away. Popo died on March 2, 2021 at age 94. My family continues to speak our language. We use it with our little ones.
This summer, I watched my five-year-old niece introduce herself to a new friend at the playground. She led by asking, “What languages do you speak?” It was beautiful to see through her lens for a moment—America is multilingual.