Being the Multilingual, Racialized “Other” in an English Dominated Linguistic Landscape

Jason at the whiteboard

Consider the language and messages you process each day. As you navigate your daily routine, what language do you hear and see most frequently? For folks living in the Corvallis, Oregon, the answer is probably English. In the last month, how many times, when, and where have you been exposed to spoken words or even signs in another language? For those of us on the Oregon State University campus, you could easily overhear or may participate in a conversation in Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic in the Memorial Union or Valley Library. How does the “linguistic landscape” (written or spoken words you encounter in life) affect you? What do you feel and how do you react to hearing a language you don’t understand? Have you been told that you don’t speak English well enough?

Shenanigans in Portland with Pat

Jason Sarkozi-Forfinski, a PhD student in Anthropology, wants to gain insight into the linguistic landscape students at Oregon State University are exposed to and their actions and feelings about about it, especially for students from non-English speaking countries. Jason’s research involves interviewing students and community members about their experiences in the US such as:

  • How do Thai-speaking folks fair when practicing English with a non-American accent?
  • How does a (white) American- English speaker from Roseburg regard different accents?
  • How do Mandarin speakers from Malaysia react to others speaking English with different accents?
  • How does an Arabic speaker from the Gulf region perceive their own accent?
  • How comfortable do Japanese speakers feel speaking a language other than English in the US?
  • How is all of this connected to the institutionalized tool of racism?

Jason has found that folks have preferences or biases about their linguistic landscape. Oregon State recruits both students from around the world and a large multilingual community of more local students. His respondents have reported being discouraged from speaking in a non-English language or facing negative social and professional consequences for speaking other languages or English with a non-(white)American accent. Could a preference for English with a (white) American accent perpetuate division? Or even bigoted practices?

Jason’s current research developed from years of conversations with friends and colleagues about being multilingual in the US. He began exploring language in his undergraduate education where he majored in Spanish and also studied Portuguese. He also studied English in Miami,

Grilled cheese on a school bus in Portland with Veronica (left) and husband, Nick.

Florida, and worked to understand how non-English languages influences local English. Before coming to OSU for his PhD, Jason has worked as a Spanish and English instructor in the US, Spain, Japan, and China.

Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM on Sunday March, 10 at 7 PM to hear more about Jason’s research and his path to graduate school. Stream the show live or catch this episode as a podcast.

Clarification [See Podcast at 25:45]: Asking someone to change their accent, according to Lippi-Green a linguistic who wrote “Speaking with an Accent,” is like asking someone to change their height. It’s doable (with lots of surgery) but would require a lot of intervention. The point here is that it’s not realistic to ask someone to work on their accent. It’s also rather demeaning.

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