English-Speaking Immigrants, Race-Born Englishes, and The “Gold Standard”

It is impossible to conduct this research without reflecting on how English has impacted my life and my family’s, so to further my reason, I introduce the personal narratives of my immigrant parents’ experiences with Englishes, as well as my own.

Both my father and my mother are immigrants, hailing from the island of Jamaica and the South American country of Guyana respectively. In Jamaica, the official language is English, but the dialect is commonly referred to as Patois. My mother’s homeland of Guyana is the only South American country that has English as its official language and many Guyanese people also speak Patois as well. While being born into a country that boasts English at the official language might suggest that the transition from their country to the United States was a smoother transition than a non-English speaking immigrant to the States, there was still a struggle with the language for my parents, especially my mother.

My mother’s mother, a Wapishana woman, was born in a region called Rupununi in Southern Guyana and spoke the Wapishana language. She attended school and never finished high school, but clearly recalled the school teaching the King’s English, though their community primarily spoke the Arawakan language amongst eachother. She ended up running away from her village and into the village of Georgetown where she met her future husband, who insisted that he would one day bring her and her children to the United States. While she never really believed him, she continued to teach her children the King’s English, “just in case”. To prepare her children for an English-speaking culture, she never taught them how to speak Wapishana. For her, her main goal was getting them to smoothly transition into the United States through language assimilation, making them practice their “perfect English” so they would have better opportunities than she would have.

Growing up in Guyana, my mother was often told that she spoke “good English” by adults while other children mocked her for being “highty-tighty” (or being posh/believing that she was superior to them). Upon arriving in America, my mother found herself being teased for having an accent, despite speaking “perfect English” back at home. It was the accent that was a dead-giveaway for her not being American-born, and because others recognized this through her speech, it made her highly self-conscious when it came to speaking. Back at home, “[she] felt superior, while in America, [she] felt inferior”; being labeled as a foreigner due to her particular English made her work twice as hard at perfecting her King’s English, not wanting to seem ‘lesser than’ in comparison to her peers.

This story brings up the concept of class connotations related to language, as well as the identity erasure of immigrants in relation to language assimilation. Because the children in her homeland of Guyana called my mother out for being “highty-tighty” for trying to perfect the King’s English, this shows us that even children understand the class association with language from a young age. Because the King’s English is held as the gold standard (aka the best form of English there is), those who achieve it (or chase after it) are also held to a certain status; those who do not perfect it are seen as lesser and tied with a negative class association. Because such a strong emphasis was placed on my mother’s life to learn the King’s English, other children perceived her as believing she was better than them. This class distinction still exists in American culture, as those who speak “proper English” are viewed as natural, while those who do not are instantly Othered as being different or not living up to the standard.

Identity erasure through language assimilation traces back to my first blog post, specifically the analysis of Marlene Nourbese Philip’s “Discourse on the Logic of Language”. Like my mother and father, Nourbese Philip (of Trinidad and Tobago) comes from a country where English is the official language. Yet like my mother, there is a war waging within Nourbese Philip’s identity as an English-speaking immigrant. English is both my mother and Nourbese Philip’s mother tongue, a language they have known all of their lives. Still, there is a foreignness to this mother tongue; although it is “natural” for them, they feel as if they must fight to achieve the gold standard in the eyes of a new society. The internal struggle between their culture/identity and attempting to assimilate to this European standard of language causes them great confusion. This also causes them anguish, and through this anguish, they recognize that the language is not as “natural” as they believed it to be their entire lives. I grew up in the community of Canarsie in Brooklyn, New York. Composed of mostly Caribbean and black families, it is more common to hear both Patois and African-American Vernacular English (or AAVE) where I live. In both cases, both Patois have incorrectly been identified as “slang” or “broken English”, when they are not either. In fact, “broken English” has negative connotations, as they insinuate that they are incorrect or “broken” and in need of being fixed.

For myself, I grew up in the community of Canarsie in Brooklyn. Comprised of mostly Caribbean and black families, the most common dialects where I live are Patois and African-American Vernacular English (or AAVE). In the cases of Patois and AAVE (which has previously been referred to as Ebonics), both have incorrectly been identified as “slang” or “broken English”, when they are not either. In fact, the terminology “broken English” itself has negative connotations behind it. “Broken” insinuates that it is something that needs to be fixed, as it is not correct. Only once it is fixed can it be deemed as “in working condition”.

I believe that my mother unknowingly drew from her experiences with her own brother, except this time, it was related to AAVE. My mother stressed the same importance of speaking/knowing the King’s English to myself and my siblings and in our household, we were not allowed to speak AAVE at all. Whenever my mother heard a sentence slip from our lips that did not fall within the parameters of the King’s English, we were immediately popped on the back of our heads and corrected. Even letting it slip once at the dinner table was enough to garner a dirty look from my mother, which prompted you to be on your P’s and Q’s for the remained of dinner.

In my mother’s eyes, she was preparing her children to assimilate into a King’s English-speaking culture. Knowing firsthand how speaking anything but the gold standard of English could Other a person, she steered us away from using anything less than that standard of English. She believed that her children fluently speaking this form of English would open doors to new opportunities and feared that her children speaking less because of negative connotations. AAVE holds its own stigma, as it is often connected with uneducated minority communities. People who speak AAVE are often perceived as “ghetto”, suggesting an inferior status due to race and class. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to use AAVE, allowing myself to get comfortable in this form of English used by my peers that gave us a oneness that we understood. While my mother still frowns upon the usage of AAVE in the household, it took for all of her children to learn on our own that using AAVE does not suggest in any way that we are uneducated, classless, or inferior to others who do not use this form of English.

The narratives from myself, my mother, and her mother show the dangerous assumptions that stem from believing that one single English should be upheld as the gold standard. To continue on this path of having a single standard raises many questions for myself:

Are we not allowed to celebrate our own Englishes because they do not fit into the gold standard?  Will immigrants forever be subjected to chasing after a strict standard of English while shedding their identities in the process, perpetuating this cycle of erasure? Will race-influenced Englishes never be seen as true Englishes and similarly to the immigrant plight, will they have to shun their personal Englishes in order to conform to an English more palatable by society? These are all questions that I seek to answer (and disprove) over the course of our year-long research.

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