Elizabeth Zheng ’22
Professor David Reuman
One evening recently, I was talking with several Mather staff members, and one of them suddenly asked me how long I have been here in America, and I said this was my third year here. He replied, “No wonder why you speak good English.” When I heard his words, my first instinct led me to utter a simple “thank you” back to him. However, deep down in my heart, I honestly did not enjoy hearing this type of statement. The reason is that a lot of people keep assuming that most Asian Americans have heavy accents when speaking English. I have been through this before when people thought I did not speak good English just because I had a strong accent. As a result, to me, it seems that one individual was just assuming that most Asian Americans were not supposed to speak “good English” without strong accents. Nonetheless, I understand that complimenting people who do a good job in speaking a second language seems to be a nice and friendly thing, so I still took it as a compliment when I heard his response. This reminds me of a term that I learned in my social psychology class: microaggression. In addition, it gave me inspiration to carry out a survey on Instagram. Before getting into the survey, it is necessary to clarify the concept of a microaggression.
Microaggression, according to Columbia psychology professor and author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Dr. Derald Wing Sue, is a term used for “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.” Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” The person making the comments may be otherwise well-intentioned and unaware of the potential impact of their words. In the case mentioned above, I think that it seems hard to determine if the person is making the comments in a hostile or friendly way, which made me confused at that moment.
Following the incident that occurred, I decided to do a survey on social media to see what people think of this. My question was: “Do you consider it as a microaggression when people tell Asian American or non-English native speakers that they ‘speak good English?’” I simply put a “Yes” button and a “No” button as a poll on my Instagram story. Surprisingly, the result of the survey shows that 79% of the people voted “Yes,” and 21% of people voted “No.” During the process of the survey, many people direct messaged me and told me about how they thought of this question personally. One person told me that, “Of course it is not a microaggression, because you are speaking a second language, and people are giving you a compliment on that.” There were also other people who tried to compare my situation here with their own situations while learning a second language, such as Spanish. In response to people’s comments, I explained to them about the difference between the pronunciation of certain Chinese language and that of English, which makes it difficult for Chinese people to pronounce some English words in a “standardized” way that seems universal to everyone. In addition, I told them how disappointing it is for us to speak comprehensible English while people are still referring to our English as bad just because we have a stronger accent which makes our pronunciation “wrong” in their mind. From the people who voted “Yes” in the survey, I realized that most of them were international students who do speak English as a second language themselves, as well as some school staff or other students with an interest in psychology. People who had indirect or direct personal experiences like mine usually tended to consider this to be a microaggression. They tended to resonate with me about this issue.
Last but not least, as a takeaway message, I think that it is important for us to be thoughtful of what we say to people. What we say can have both intended and unintended consequences. Sometimes, when you are coming with good intentions and trying to be friendly to other people, it may appear as a hostile message that makes others uncomfortable in the situation. On the other hand, in this situation of speaking a second language specifically, it is also of great importance to understand that as long as others are speaking in a comprehensible way, it should not be considered as if they speak the language badly just because they have a heavier accent. This might seem to be a tiny issue that does not even matter in our daily lives, but you never know how such words can affect a person negatively.