Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US

Hatred of language: What can you do?
This happened for speaking the “wrong” language.

Advocating for a multilingual public space may seem abstract or a “nice-to-have” feature for an ideal society. A recent event shocked me into the realization that language tolerance matters for life and death. Hatred towards languages begets real violence against others. We must all embrace and engage in public use of multiple languages for the sake of those who would be discriminated against on the basis of language.

Two weeks ago, someone was assaulted for speaking a language. A Somali woman, Asma Jama, was speaking Swahili publicly, in a restaurant with her family in Coon Rapids (a little North of Minneapolis), Minnesota. (Many Somalis speak Swahili fluently or even as their first language because they were born and/or raised in Kenya, the home of almost 2.5 million Somalis.) Hearing this non-English language upset a white woman, Jodie Marie Burchard-Risch, and her husband, so the woman assaulted the Swahili-speaker by dumping her beer on her and smashing her face with the glass.

Language hate. Whether Burchard-Risch attacked because of language or because Jama was Somali or Muslim, no one will know. What triggered the initial anger, though, was language.

According to an interview with Jama, Burchard-Risch initially verbally assaulted Jama, telling her that she should “go home.” The victim responded, “I’m home. I can speak English, but we choose to speak whatever language we want.”

We choose to speak whatever language we want.

Do we? What does “the public” allow us to speak?

I have been fighting for more languages in the public sphere in the US. This goal appeared abstract when I wrote about it last, and then I read this article and saw the photos of the physical cost of speaking Swahili.

A large number of Americans feel real fear and anger when they hear a language besides English. They fear someone is talking about them. They feel their own inadequacy. They feel the distance and difference between people. They feel isolated and cut off.

The above exchange happens often, though usually short of the broken glass. While Jama never experienced it during her 15 years here, I have met plenty of people who went through such terrible judgment.

I WANT MY KIDS TO SPEAK LANGUAGES! How can they when the reaction to hearing languages is this violence? Shame and defensiveness and silence naturally follow from speaking another language when this rage lurks under the surface of our culture.

Act! Learn a language!

I hope my reader doesn’t just feel bad about this incident, but does the little it takes to reverse this state of affairs.

Go learn another language!

You don’t have to be perfect or even good.

It doesn’t matter if you learn ¿Cómo está? from “Sesame Street,” now you know it. Go use it.

How about saying, Namaste to an Indian or Salaam aleykum to an Arab?

The other person may be overjoyed, surprised, or suspicious. Don’t worry about it. You have made speaking Spanish, Hindi, and Arabic in public acceptable.

Even better, say Jambo! (“Hello!”)to the next Swahili speaker you meet.

What are you doing to bring more languages to the public sphere?

Photo from Asma’s Medical Fund on GoFundMe.com.


14 thoughts on “Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US

  1. Pingback: Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US | theedytor

  2. Hi Richard! Thank you for sharing this story. This is an awful situation. 😦 Hope that Jama recovers quickly.
    I experienced this attitude to people speaking other languages in the US even back in 1997-1998 when I came there for two summers as a student to work in a children’s camp. There were quite a few foreign counsellors in that camp including several Russians, and the American staff often approached us saying they felt paranoid when they heard us speaking our native language between ourselves. So we tried to speak English as much as possible. Your post just reminded me about those times. Why they invited foreign people to work if they felt threatened by the sole fact of their existence, I have no idea…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US | Languages @Michigan

  4. I saw this awful item of news last week and thought of you and your quest. That poor woman. She’ll probably never get over that attack. And the family most likely fled to the US because they thought they’d be safe there 😦

    When I was 19 and working as an au-pair in the UK, I was asked not to speak German to my German friends because it “would confuse the children”. That’s the only situation I can recall where I was”reprimanded for using the “wrong” language. Pretty tame. Although I was very annoyed at the time, I do remember that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Germans, I’ve noticed, are so polite about making sure that they don’t use a language that would exclude anyone. Nevertheless, would it hurt for more Brits and Americans to learn German?

      Also, if speaking German around British kids would “confuse” them, then I’m all for confusing the heck out of them. I like to confuse the daylights out of my own kids–and I encourage others to do the same around them.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Rachel

      Oh, so confusing.

      Mine was the other way! I babysat for a bit for a family in my town, and the mother used to frown at me when I spoke English to the children! She was from Baden-Wurttemburg, came out to Australia as a teenager, and claimed that she could only speak Schwaebisch (and English, obviously). She wanted her children to speak Hochdeutsch and because I went to the German School with them, had me babysit them to speak Hochdeutsch to them. Which is sort of sad, now I think about it, but the school has a bit of a negative stance when it comes to dialects…

      I’ve got to say if English-speaking kids are confused by someone speaking German, there’s a problem. Besides which, if you’re talking to your friends, they shouldn’t be eavesdropping anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love Schwäbisch! Much softer than my Bavarian. I wish I’d been born in Swabia. Sigh. That’s a shame about the school. Sure, the teaching probably ought to be in Hochdeutsch, but they should not censor students for speaking their dialects. It’s all German, and retaining them does not mean that this will turn them into incompetent Hochdeutsch speakers/writers.


  5. Rachel

    This is horrible.

    A disturbing trend I’ve noticed over the last few years is that “white” people are left free to speak their own languages, in public, at the shops, and no-one cares, but people who “look different” are pressured to chance to swapping English. It’s like we’re saying “well, you already look like us, so you can be different, if you want”, and to the others, “you look different outside, so you’ve got to be like us inside”.

    For example, at the shops a few months ago, the family ahead of my father and I in the queue were speaking German to each other (mother, father, two preteen children) and no-one batted an eyelid. But I couldn’t help but think if they hadn’t been fair-haired and fair-skinned, would someone have reacted?

    On a happier note, I have a memory from Sunday School once when I was about twelve or thirteen, I can’t remember why, but the teacher sat us all down and said, “How many languages can we say ‘hello’ in?” It was only a small class, perhaps a dozen of us, but I was the only one Australian-born (I was the only one white, if it comes to that) and we ended up with about twenty different languages on the board, including English, German, Swahili, French, Lingala, Hindi, Hokkien, and more than I can’t even remember.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A friend of mine told me how she was asked in Korea to stop speaking English on the train, as it was apparently insulting to some of the locals. It’s sad that a language could provoke anger, but on the other side it’s also interesting to consider what would coerce someone into being insulted by not hearing their native language.

    I’m trying to think of any similar encounters in China, but the closest I can think of is people making assumptions that you’re certainly american if you aren’t speaking Chinese and look western.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some languages trigger specific emotional reactions, so maybe English itself was the problem? When US was imposing fines on foreign banks, and I was in Switzerland, I was advised to speak my American English more quietly. I know that one does not speak German at Holocaust memorials, either.


  7. Pingback: Interview with Richard Benton from Loving Language - Krzysiek.cl

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