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Language Discrimination: English as a Language of Social Power

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D in clinical psychology, specializes in pediatrics, health psychology, and behavioral medicine.

The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

While language discrimination may be illegal in workplace and school settings, it often operates just barely above the legal requirement affecting people whose first language is not the national language. Also, in non employment or education settings, language discrimination can exist on a number of levels, such as how professionals such as doctors provide feedback to a patient or how a governmental official helps an immigrant understand their rights.

Pete Hoekstra SuperBowl Ad

Language discrimination in the U.S. continues to be a major problem for immigrants. This was never more evident than during the 2012 Superbowl. A commercial created by Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, aired which was aimed at discrediting his opponent in the upcoming race. The ad featured a woman riding a bicycle past a rice paddy in China. Stopping her bike she began to speak in broken English, referring to Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic incumbent, “Debbie Spenditnow,"

The intended message appeared, on the surface, to be that the incumbent was responsible for borrowing an excessive amount of money from China leading to a depressed American economy and a boosted Chinese economy. The woman also stated that the Chinese were taking American jobs, another effect of uncontrolled spending.

The name “Debbie Spenditnow," was not unfamiliar to viewers but the setting was new. Similarly, the accusations relating to China had been made frequently so the message itself could not have been intended as the persuasive technique. No one pays the huge fees for a Superbowl add toe reiterate ad content that has already been seen repeatedly. Instead, the intent of the commercial was to create an association between the candidate and automatic negative judgments of immigrants lacking English fluency which would come to mind when the candidate was mentioned. The ad resulted in immediate outrage by a variety of groups across the country.

Moral Outrage and Protests Against Language Discrimination

Many groups found the Hoekstra ad very disturbing saying it included harmful negative stereotypes that encouraged anti-Asian sentiment. Thus, the outcry that occurre did not focus on negative campaigning or inaccuracies in the advertisement. Instead, the focus was on the negative portrayal of the Chinese. In fact, no mention was made of the surface message. Hoekstra was accused of being racially insensitive, intentionally using negative stereotypes which increased anti-Asian discrimation. The main element credited for creating anti-Asian and anti-Asian American sentiment was the use of broken English by the woman in the ad. Many believed this to be reinforcing language discrimination.

This ad and the vehement response that resulted made two major points. First, it underscored that immigrants who don’t speak English fluently are viewed negatively in American society. This negative perception is reinforced through stereotypes presented by the media. The public display of negative representations can strongly affects immigrants social power. The response to the ad also demonstrated that many people in this country are aware of this connection and do not approve of using this connection as a persuasive political messages.

The moral outrage in response to the Superbowl ad was the result of concern that the broken English spoken by the Chinese woman used for the ad would affect negative views of Asians and Asian Americans living in this country. Negative views were registered even though the woman was clearly Chinese and living in China. This reaction was immediate, not a response which was a well-reasoned effort at pointing out the weaknesses of the candidate who was responsible for the ad (Penn, 2014).

Such automatic negative responses and evaluations without considering their validity is clearly a problem in their own right. Yet another problem shown by this ad is that language discrimination can rub off on others. Negative evaluations that form based solely on language fluency are so emotionally loaded that they can be used to create negative impressions of others, in this case a political candidate, based solely on association.

Poll on Language Fluency

Language Fluency and Value Judgements

In The Keys to Academic English (Hale & Besides, 2013), the relationship between the ability to speak English and the way in which the speaker is viewed, is explored. The authors state:

If a person makes basic errors in communication, in any register, there is a real chance that they will be misunderstood. This misunderstanding extends well beyond the message they are trying to communicate: it extends to being the subject of value judgments by other people…Of course the people making this assessment probably won’t say it that way. They will assume that the person [is] lazy, ignorant, stupid, illiterate, or just socially inept. They will then act accordingly, and treat the person as if it were true (pp. 92-93)

In a nation that has a large immigrant population, the tendency to view those who speak English poorly is a big problem. The inability to speak fluidly alone can lead to negative self-appraisals and the feeling that a person is not fully able to control important areas of their life. At times these immigrants may be taken advantage of due to having to rely on the word of others when dealing with financial responsibilities. They may also get into financial difficulties due to incomplete understanding of what they are agreeing to and the inability to clearly communicate their questions.

Value judgements made by other people based solely on immigrants inability to communicate clearly can influence and sometimes lead to these problems. Being incapable of straightening out day to day difficulties can lead to frustration and anger or it may result in a self-fulfilling prophesy. People who judge immigrants almost exclusively on language fluency, often use this deficit as the basis of numerous attributions of value such as social skills, motivation, educational status and intelligence. This type of language discrimination is found in all non-English speaking immigrant populations.

Although the underlying cause of the negative evaluation of immigrants who do not have a complete grasp of English is language fluency, those making the judgements fail to see this connections. Instead they believe their judgements to be accurate and based on relevant evidence. Additionally, once these types of negative evaluations are made they tend to persist. These factors make it impossible for those who are not language fluent to prove these evaluations aren’t accurate. The consistency and widespread nature of these beliefs can ultimately come to be internalized by immigrants until they believe them as well. This can affect every area of their life.

Language discrimination can lead to negative emotions in immigrants

Language discrimination can lead to negative emotions in immigrants

Language Discrimination, Stereotypes and Shaping

This quote points out another dimension related to the negative effects of speaking broken English for the speaker. Not only will people make the attribution that negative characteristics such as laziness, stupidity or being socially inept are the cause of poor English speaking ability, but people making negative judgments will act in accordance with their beliefs. This is the way that stereotypes turn into harmful actions. Instead of first getting to know a person as a person some look to group people based on their ethnic or cultural group only. Their actions will follow in line with their stereotypes such that they will treat those from different groups as if they are lazy or stupid, which may be in the form of restricting access to housing, education, employment or healthcare (Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977).

The harm that occurs as a result of negative stereotypes of those who fail to speak perfect English can also occur at an individual level in the form of shaping behavior. Stereotypes not only shape the behavior or the individual holding the stereotype but stereotypes also shape the behavior of the person being stereotyped.

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It has been recognized that people act in line with the way they are treated. For example in a study that examined the effect of an attractiveness stereotype, experimenters told male subjects they would be talking on the phone with a woman and then gave them a picture of the woman. In reality the pictures were not of their phone partners. Some men received pictures of an attractive women and some received pictures of an unattractive woman. The men who believed they were talking to an attractive woman rated their partners higher on how likeable, interesting and intelligent they were compared to the other men.

The most interesting and unexpected outcome was of this study is that the women who were associated with the attractive picture acted more sociable, friendly and outgoing than the other women. This was attributed to the men who believed they were talking to an attractive woman behaving more sociably, enthusiastic and more attentive and they invested more time in the call compared to the other men. The women these men were speaking to responded in kind. This showed that people act in accord with others stereotypes of them even when those stereotypes are negative (Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977).

Amy Tan with Mother

Amy Tan with Mother

Amy Tan on English Literacy and the Behavior of Healthcare Practitioners

In the essay Mother Tongue (1990), Amy Tan provides an example of the differences in the behavior of healthcare personnel when speaking with her mother and then with her.

“My mother had gone to the hospital for an appointment…She said she had spoken very good English, her best English, no mistakes. Still, she said, the hospital did not apologize when they said they had lost the CAT scan and she had come for nothing…And when the doctor finally called her daughter, me, who spoke in perfect English – lo and behold – we had assurances the CAT scan would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any suffering my mother had gone through for a most regrettable mistake” (Tan, 1990, p.317).

Although her mother stated she had spoken perfect English, the assumption that is made in the passage is that she had not done so. When her daughter made a follow-up call to her mother’s healthcare providers they treated her very differently. Tan continues to explore this topic and discusses another important area. She examines the idea that not everyone who is heard speaking broken English does so due to a lack of ability. This concept continues to be looked at in more recent literature as well (Crystal, 2004). Tan mentions that her mother doesn’t speak the way she does due to the inability to speak perfectly. Tan states her mother reads the newspaper and books in English and is able to converse easily with her stock broker about her portfolio.

Is it possible Tan’s mother thought she was speaking perfect English although she had fallen back on more comfortable sentence structure based on her first language? It is conceivable based on recent literature that, in the past, she experienced a lack of confidence when speaking to professionals who perhaps had responded to her less than perfect English with disdain (Penn, 2014). Then, in later interactions, she may have intended to use perfect English. However, she may have chosen to use the language structure she was most familiar with to compete with any self-doubt she might have experienced in relation to her imperfect command of English.

Based on the concept of stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies, it is possible that in attempting to communicate competently in English, Tan’s mother chose to simplify her language. This choice may have led to those conversing with her to treat her as if she was lacking in intelligence and the ability to understand health related information. She may, in turn, have then responded in a manner that seemed to indicate that she was, in fact, unintelligent. The idea that this is a possibility is suggested in a passage where Amy Tan provides an example of how both she and her mother speak to each other, despite both having a command of the English language.

A particularly poignant passage suggests that Tan viewed her mother’s imperfect use of English as an indicator of being limited in what she had to say. Tan writes:

I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother's “limited” English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her Tan, 1990, p. 318)

This passage is extremely telling, since Amy Tan clearly recognizes that she speaks the same way her mother does when they converse, despite speaking perfect English using professional terminology when speaking to an audience. She also recognizes that her mother reads the Wall Street Journal, converses with her stockbroker and has read numerous books that Amy Tan admits to not being able to understand. The essay appears to suggest that her mother makes the choice to speak English based on the structure and syntax of the Chinese language, a choice Tan herself makes when conversing with her mother. Yet she still states she viewed her mother as someone without much to say based on the way her mother chose to speak.

Tan fully recognizes the reasons behind her perceptions. Yet she still viewed her mother based on an admitted contradiction. If this is the case, it seems that we are all in danger of viewing others whose first language is not English, as being only as smart as their command of the English language indicates.

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Concluding Remarks

The first step to eliminating this bias against those whose first language is not English is awareness. Only when recognizing our own tendency to view others capabilities, intelligence, command of complex cognitive processes, based primarily on how well they speak English can we hope to overcome this bias. Stereotypes can be neutralized by understanding that imperfect English may be a reflection of not having finished learning English. It may also be a deliberate choice when speaking with those from a similar background. Focusing on what each person we come into contact with has to offer instead of their limitations will make it easier to develop respect for those who communicate in less than perfect English.


Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language (2nd Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Hale, A. & Basides, H. (2013). The Keys to Academic English. South Yarra (Melb.):Macmillan.

Kirkpatrick, A. (2007). World Englishes: Implications for international communication and English language teaching. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Penn, S. (2014). Cultural communication barriers in the workplace. The Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from

Schneider, E. W. (2007). Postcolonial English: Varieties around the world. Cambridge MA:Cambridge University Press.

Snyder, M., Tanke, S. D., and Berscheid, E. (1977). Social perception and interpersonal behavior: On the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 656-666.

Tan, A. (1990). “Mother Tongue,” originally published as “Under Western Eyes” in Threepenny Review, pp. 315–320.

Tsurutani, C. (2012). Evaluation of speakers with foreign accented speech in Japan: the effect of accent produced by English native speakers. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 33 (6), pp. 589-603.

Kirkpatrick, A. (2007). World Englishes: Implications for international communication and English language teaching. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Schneider, E. W. (2007). Postcolonial English: Varieties around the world. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

© 2017 Natalie Frank


Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on May 02, 2018:

Camille - it seems like you underscored the same quote as Dora - it must have resonated! Thanks for the feedback and for relating your personal experience with this idea.

Camille Harris from SF Bay Area on April 29, 2018:

"Only when recognizing our own tendency to view others . . . based primarily on how well they speak English can we hope to overcome this bias."

Definitely a great selection by MsDora. Articles like this help us recognize this tendency.

I work with people around the world, and many are non-native English speakers. Since working with them (and attempting to learn German!), I've gained a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to speak a second language fluently. Much respect to all non-native English speakers.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on April 18, 2017:

Great quote, Dora. It really sums up the point of the article. Thanks for the feedback. Your input is always valuable and communicates added meaning.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 18, 2017:

"Only when recognizing our own tendency to view others . . . based primarily on how well they speak English can we hope to overcome this bias." Very insightful and powerfully demonstrated.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on April 16, 2017:

No worries - it was clear what you meant. Hope to have another Hub posted by end of today. Stay tuned!

Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on April 14, 2017:

gosh I ate up a 'not' in my comment. What I meant was 'who do not have english as first language' :)

I am surely looking forward to reading more of your quality work. Thanks again!!

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on April 14, 2017:

Thanks so much. Good point about American's vs. Chinese. Hope some of my other Hubs will entice you to read!

Anila shaheen on April 13, 2017:

English is my third language . I start learning alphabets in grade 7. And recently I have been applied for job seeking visa in a European country. But they rejected my visa on English grammar and spelling mistakes base. Are European still conscious about English language like Pakistanies?

Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on April 12, 2017:

Brilliant write-up, loved it. I think for all of us who do have english as their first language, learning it is more like acquiring a skill-set in a time bound manner that makes us more competent.

On a lighter note though, I think an American immigrant with broken Chinese would feel more miserable in China than a Chinese imigrant with broken english in America.

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