Speak and I Will Know Thee: Standard English as a Tool of Oppression and Liberation

My only lingual fluency is in English, and only then with a certain level of caffeine in my system. I am not proud of this fact: I constantly tell the Freeport middle schoolers I work with how lucky they are to be bilingual, whether it be in Spanish or Creole. Even to the kids that do not speak English, molding clay beside a classmate-cum-translator, I tell them (rather their translator) how envious I am of them. They are young enough to learn. Starting Italian this semester at 25, I physically feel the struggle to comprehend these foreign rules of grammar. Knowing two languages is having two brains, four ears, four eyes, and still one heart. They are lucky. Except they aren’t: they are brown, poor and “academically challenged.” They’re stuck, and for too many of them, they will remain stuck in American. Despite their lingual gifts —or maybe because of them.

Where, how and how well one knows Standard English reflects one’s privileges (or lack thereof) in American society. If one learns English from Schoolhouse Rock videos shown by their parental figure on the family computer, or in for single period five times a week in a public school ESL classroom matters. It matters because there is an intersectional relationship between how one obtains English fluency and one’s status in American society. Fluency in English, and the journey to said fluency, was a privilege when Chief Standing Bear of the Poncas and Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota, and it remains so today.

 

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My “function” to whom or what (and why)?  The Conductor from the Schoolhouse Rock classic “Conjunction Junction.”

Chief Standing Bear may not be the author of the work he narrates. Written in the first person plural, Chief Standing Bear notes that the 10 Ponca chiefs tell the inspector “The interpreter is ours. We pay him…” (Chief Standing Bear). Seeing as Chief Standing Bear was not fluent or fluent enough in English to speak directly to the American inspector, it is possible that Chief Standing Bear’s interpreter is writing this down or telling a person fluent in English Chief Standing Bear’s story. It is possible Chief Standing Bear wrote better English, or learned to, than he spoke and that these are his direct words. Though perhaps not: his use of the first person plural, in comparison to the first person singular used by the formally educated inspector and Luther Standing Bear, indicate either a lack of formal education in English or a purposeful misuse of the language, reflecting Ponca values. Nevertheless, the introduction of translation is a constant reminder to me the reader that there may be several degrees of removal between Chief Standing Bear’s experience of the events and what I am reading. The questioning and balancing of multiple truths in this story of injustice is distracting in reading and feeling this story.

From this tension of authorship (and thereby, ownership of truth), interesting ideas do spring forth. Rereading my sentence, I note how Chief Standing Bear may not be fluent enough. What does it mean to be “fluent enough”? To be understood, or to master a language? Can a language be mastered in the same way the Poncas were (unjustly) “mastered” by the American soldiers. Those soldiers killed 158 men, women and children: those soldiers took mastery of their lives and ended it (Chief Standing Bear). More often than not I believe one is awarded fluency by another. Fluency then requires a master. If so, who is the master? I am told I am fluent in English yet I do not feel any mastery over it. I have been told that one’s relationship with language and words is a lifelong journey: that you get better, but never perfect. You can become the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful person in the “free” world, and still not be a master of Standard English, as George W. Bush exemplified.

I don’t know how one progresses the stages of fluency to become fluent. Could Chief Standing Bear become fluent in Standard English? Yes, of course, but would Chief Standing Bear be acknowledged as fluent in Standard English in the 19th century courtroom where a judge, military men, journalists, and native English speakers witnessed his speech? Was it possible for him, if he were fluent, to be called so then? I am not confident he would be, given the treatment he received by the inspector and jailers, who kept Chief Standing Bear in jail even after the President’s telegram was received, proving the Chief correct (Chief Standing Bear). Who gets to call you fluent is a symbol of privilege.

Luther Standing Bear was most definitely the writer of his words. As a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, learning Standard English in an academic school setting was part of “the ‘civilizing’ process” (Luther Standing Bear 376). This process he and his fellow pupils were inflicted with treats language as a material object. Under the umbrella of “civilizing,” markers of culture from the concrete (high collars, leather boots, white bread) to abstract (the significance of cutting one’s hair, one’s name, the prohibition of speaking any language but English) become tangible through the bodies of these children (376, 377). Cultural identity, rather than being a process, seems to Pratt and the Carlisle educators, to be a commodity. Because of this, I feel Luther Standing Bear is the writer, but not the editor of his words. His narrative structure, expository essay and proper English seem imply his audience is American. If it were his fellow Lakota, the specificity of his schooling years would not be framed like this, but include references and the language of his people.

Luther Standing Bear is writing for an American audience and this, coupled with the fact of how English was taught to him at the expense of his native language, makes me believe that his Carlisle teachers are his mental editors. In a way, all of our English teachers, from our parents to our friends to actual institutional instructors, are our mental editors. However, given the means by which it was taught and the environment the Lakota children were taught — in uncomfortable clothing with random inspections of their rooms, rooms overlooking a child graveyard — there has to be a psychological difference in a person’s usage and understanding of Standard English. My use of Standard English puts me at a much more privileged position, psychologically speaking, than the Carlisle children. Forget cogito ergo sum: “I speak, therefore I am” is far truer.

With all this said, how does one resist using a language oppressed upon you by your oppressors? Luther Standing Bear’s indifference to his English name selection has been called in our class an act of resistance. I hesitate to call it that. Is one performing resistance when done with lack of intent or consciousness? Is resistance deliberate and only deliberate? I hope to find that answer out by the end of the class. What I do believe, now at least, is that all language should serve its users, not vice versa. Grammar and the rules of language, rather than being a wall excluding those they find undesirable, ought to be a bridge allowing for common knowledge to create exceptional bonds via understandable communication. A number of people I met who learned English as a secondary language tell me of how difficult a language it is to learn. I am privileged to not know this struggle firsthand, and I speak from this privilege when I assert my belief that English is not inherently a difficult language. English wasn’t born hard: it was made hard by self-proclaimed gatekeepers.

To combat these Standard English Grammar Nazis/Alt-Righters, improper English, deliberately and continuously employed, can be a tool of liberation. Chief Standing Bear’s use of the first personal plural versus the first person singular, slang, and creole: these words challenge the oppressive hegemony of Standard English by showing the true flexibility and durability of English. Language is a tool of liberation. The dictionary is subservient to us, the living. As Luther Standing Bear says, “Only the people themselves, and never the scholars, can nourish [a language] into life” (377). Language creates not the one and only Word or Truth, à la N. Scott Momaday, but several. The possibilities are limitless and that is the germ from which liberation, societal and individual, blooms.

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3 thoughts on “Speak and I Will Know Thee: Standard English as a Tool of Oppression and Liberation”

  1. Excellent post. Great balance of humor, modesty, and textual and inter-texual support. I agree that there’s something fascinating about those with power whose grasp of the finer points of grammar and communication is limited. Power, whether from knowing the dominant language or being born into a socioeconomically privileged existence, is a complex force. I also agree that fluency with multiple languages is a skill that (even with translating apps) is increasingly important. Before the European Union it seemed indispensable, and now with Brexit and a trend towards renewed nationalism, one wonders if it will regain its appeal. To be able to read codes across cultures gives the multiple-language speaker the possibility of serving as a bridge (as Standing Bear hoped his son would be, and as Luther Standing Bear hoped to be) or a cultural informant. I’m interested in what you will think of Anzaldua, although I suspect you might have read some of her work already.

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  2. First of all, I just have to start off by saying that this blog post was AMAZINGLY written. The way in which you incorporated evidence from the text and also placed it into a sentence including your thoughts was marvelous. I have a fun fact about myself that I would like to share with you: I’m bilingual. In a way, but certainly not to the extent of Luther Standing Bear or Chief Standing Bear’s experiences, I can certainly understand the difficulties of what both characters had to face. Polish is my first language and within my first few years of schooling I was placed into an ESL class. I remember feeling so indifferent to my peers because it took me twice as much time to complete any type of assignment that included reading English. Still till this day English is not my best subject, nor will it ever be because it wasn’t my first language, however, I can proudly say that I am capable of speaking two languages. Lastly, I would like to point out a sentence that truly stood out to me because I can relate and also the addition of your opinion and a reference from the text once again was spectacularly presented (“What does it mean to be “fluent enough”? To be understood, or to master a language?”). I’m 100% Polish, which in my opinion implies to individuals that I’ve mastered a language, but in reality I believe that I am fluent enough to be understood and also maintain a conversation with another Polish speaking individual. Each language seems to stand by with its own different set of “rules” and words, but the question is, can one truly be aware of it all?

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    1. Hey Natalia! In all seriousness, I cannot thank you enough for your comment. It would have been great hearing anything you have to say (and I am glad you liked my post), but to share a part of yourself means more than I can express. Thank you,t hank you, thank you!

      It was true in my post and it is true now: I am so jealous of your fluency! What a blessing: especially with the language being Polish. The only Polish word I know is “gnocchi” (and if you could thank your ancestors for me for that amazing dish, I would be very grateful), but I do know a bit of Polish history. It is nothing short of incredible how Poles have managed to keep their culture intact despite the continued hostility and inhuman aggression of neighbors such as Prussia, Russia, Germany and so on. Talk about resisting oppressive power. You have resistance in your blood, girl! Respect!

      It really is a credit to you that you maintained your understanding of Polish. ESL classes, well-intentioned as I believe many of those teachers are, have a history (to this day) of encouraging students to forget and abandon their native languages in favor of English. Especially languages not seen as “professionally beneficial” as Spanish or French are. English is such a hard language: I am currently taking Grammar with Prof. Dresner (side note: totally recommend her as a professor) and I am remembering how hard of a language it is with its many rules and exceptions. I was in Special Education when I was a little kid because I struggled with spelling and grammar. English is hard for me as a native speaking adult: I can honestly not imagine the struggle it is for a young child with peers who do not understand or face the same struggle. You are a fighter, friend. Your English, as far I am concerned, is as good as any native speaker. Your ability to understand and relate to the Standing Bears is a type of knowledge no native English speaker in America can ever have. You are right to be proud of your lingual abilities. It was well-earned!

      I love your closing sentence: “Each language seems to stand by with its own different set of ‘rules’ and words, but the question is, can one truly be aware of it all?” Again with my Grammar class, I am reminded weekly of how little I know the “rules” and words of my own language. I just write and say words in a certain order without knowing — or even questioning — why I use that order. It is kind of scary in a way, isn’t it, having so little awareness of something you do and why you do it? Perhaps that is a tool of power: making one subservient without letting them think to ask WHY they are in that position. I don’t know if we can truly be aware of it, but I think it is a damn good question worth asking. Well said!

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