a personal essay by Chris Fong Chew
“SPEAK ENGLISH!” they screamed. “You’re in America, we speak English here.”
Yes, English— a language that originated in Europe. The language of the Anglo Saxon, Germanic people who conquered a tiny island almost a thousand years ago. The language of the Normans, the British, and Shakespeare.
English, the language of colonizers, the language of the Puritans, the Scots-Irish, and Royalists. The language that eradicated thousands of indigenous dialects and languages in the Americas.
English, the official language of 58 countries, from India to Australia, Canada to Botswana.
English is the language I speak, write, and understand. It is what my family speaks, and how I communicate with my friends. And yet, it is a language I loathe.
However, it is not the English language itself that I have grown to dislike, but the way it has become a tool of my own oppression.
What more is a language except for a bunch of sounds we create with our mouths— a bunch of lines written across a piece of paper? A language is an intangible concept that is used to describe and bring tangible things to life.
There is so much beauty in the way language describes, expresses, and explains. Yet, language can also be a tool of oppression. A tool to spread hate, belittle, demean, and insult. When Europeans first arrived in the U.S. That's exactly what happened. They tore the native people from their land and forced them into missionary camps and reservations. They put their children in schools and stole from them their language, culture, and ways of life.
It's what our founding fathers did when they decided that slaves would be three-fifths of a person and black men unworthy of an education. It’s what the South did when blacks were given suffrage, but had to pay poll taxes and take rigged literacy tests.
Yes, I loathe the language I speak because it is the language of oppressors. The language of colonizers. The language of people who have committed unspeakable horrors to the people whose land they conquered. And when a white man or woman screams at another person to speak English they too have weaponized their own language against another person.
They see a person's inability to speak English as a measure of their intelligence, of their being, and of their worth. They forget one's accent or broken English means that they are fluent in another language- that English is not their first but their second language. Yet, we scream at these people, mock them, and tell them to speak English, the language of colonizers, oppressors, and people who have committed unspeakable horrors.
I only wish that in that moment I could pluck the person out of their comfortable English-speaking environment and place them in a foreign country so I could watch them struggle learning how to speak and read in another language. I wish I could take them back in time to see how their language was used as a tool of oppression, ethnic genocide, and racial cleansing.
But the oppressor has already won. I speak English. I am fluent in English. English is my native language. But the beauty of language is it does not belong to anyone, just as it is used as a tool to oppress, it is my tool to empower.
And from this, I exist. The language that was used to oppress generations past, is now my own. A tool to fight back. A tool to educate. A tool to preserve. For my oppressors have handed me the very weapon that they have used against my ancestors. And with it, I wield the responsibility to enlighten, empower, and educate for the better.
- Chris Fong Chew
Cover Photo Source: https://humanparts.medium.com/talk-spanglish-to-me-5de344d6286c?gi=sd