Something To Think About

Something To Think About


Leonard Zwelling

That was the subject line of the email sent to first and second year biostatistics grad students by the Director of the Masters Program at Duke Medical School, Megan Neely. The email was a warning to Chinese students to speak English 100% of the time during their time in the U.S. She was indicating that an unfavorable opinion of students who speak Chinese in lounge areas and outside the classroom could influence their success with the faculty.

Needless to say, the furor was fast. This was despite the fact that Dr. Neely had sent a similar email a year before. She resigned as head of the program and Dean Mary Klotman of the Duke Medical School disavowed any
prejudice being used against the Chinese-speaking students. Nonetheless, the many student associations are in an uproar and want a full-fledged investigation of whether the languages people speak outside the classroom may be having an influence on their success in the classroom.

Well, duh!

It was insensitive and foolish for Dr. Neely to have written her emails and Dr. Klotman was right to step up and declare that Duke is a prejudice-free zone. But is it? That is doubtful.

I have spent most of the past five weeks in Asia being one of the few Westerners among the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Thais, Taiwanese and Chinese of Hong Kong. I get it and the students are right. I certainly knew I was not home any longer. But so is Dr. Neely right although she was most clumsy in her attempts to make her point.

It is absolutely essential that the language chosen by anyone outside the classroom should have no influence on his or her success in it. Dr. Klotman’s point is well taken. BUT—my guess is that it does influence opinions when one Chinese student is facile in English and uses it everywhere including in social situations and another is less facile reverting to his or her native tongue when amongst like-speaking colleagues. All of it is true and everything matters when one is trying to create an impression on others, especially your facility in communicating.

Even though many of the people we met on our travels spoke English as a second language (or third, or fourth) we were always aware that we were other and would never really fit in as long as we were tied to a single language and it was not the one spoken by the native people of the lands we were visiting.

Putting the shoe on the other foot like the over 300,000 Chinese studying in America and who must use English in the classroom and business setting, it would be hard if I had to do it. I can’t even speak reasonable high school French any longer, let alone Mandarin.

We Americans are lucky. Because of our economic power we are often accommodated when we travel around the world. Almost every restaurant has a menu in English for us. Most restaurants in the U.S. do not have their menus in a Chinese language yet the many students have to contend with that inconvenience, far more than we Americans do in their country.

It was truly dumb for Dr. Neely to make her point about the benefits of fluency in English in an email to many students, many of whom were bound to take offense. Now it’s gone viral and Duke has to deal with it. They will, but the only real way to deal with it is get used to the fact that American academia is depending upon foreign students to pay tuition and staff its laboratories. Without them, academia as we know it would cease to exist. It is also true that opinions may be formed based on the appearance of how Americanized a visiting student is. That’s just reality. We all need to be more welcoming of our visitors and they will indeed benefit from learning our language. But in the student lounge, let them share jokes in Chinese.

This was a shameful chapter at Duke that could have been avoided with some heightened sensitivity and a second or two of thought on the part of Dr. Neely.

On the other hand, if it brings to the surface a hidden bias against certain people that can be dealt with using education, then the lasting effect may be beneficial.

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