Janesville66.9°

Words will never hurt us—except in Wisconsin

Print Print
Esther Cepeda
February 6, 2012
— Only in America can saying “I love you” merit a senseless punishment.

Just days after I wrote a column about the need for this country to not only ensure that all its public school students are fluent in English but also be able to communicate in other languages comes this story out of Shawano, Wis.: A 12-year-old was punished by a teacher for speaking a few non-English words in class.


Miranda Washinawatok said she was reprimanded by her Sacred Heart Catholic School homeroom teacher for “attitude issues” so egregious that the seventh-grader was benched from playing in her school’s basketball game that evening.


Washinawatok, a bilingual student who speaks her family’s native Menominee language, said the words “posoh” and “Ketapanen” which mean, respectively, “Hello” and “I love you” to two of her classmates.


According to news reports, Miranda’s mother, Tanaes Washinawatok, said the teacher responded by slamming her hands down on the desk and stating, “You are not to be speaking like that. How do I know you’re not saying something bad?”


That’s really what it always comes down to when we’re discussing the overly emotional topic of language, doesn’t it? When monolingual people hear others speaking a different language, they tend to feel uncomfortable, like maybe they are being spoken of unkindly.


I get that—no one wants to feel awkward, but monolingual Americans need to get over the fear that people who speak languages other than English are somehow saying something bad.


It’s beyond ridiculous that in a school that is 60 percent Native American, and situated about six miles from the Menominee Indian Tribe Reservation, a student got punished not for disturbing class or ignoring an instructor, but for teaching a fellow pupil how to say a few words in a different language.


This—in addition to the vitriolic emails I was flooded with after suggesting that foreign languages and bilinguality have important roles to play in enriching American culture—illustrates how sadly unprepared some people are to accept our rapidly diversifying country and the realities of globalization.


Yet, it’s almost understandable when people who don’t have positive relationships with those who speak other languages feel this way. It is a disgrace, however, that professional staff at a largely Native American-populated school have so little regard for their own students’ culture.


Sure, the school sent home a letter of apology for allowing a “perception” of cultural discrimination to exist, but it insisted that the disciplinary incident “was not the result of any discriminatory action or attitude and did not happen as a negative reaction to the cultural heritage of any of our students.”


A “cultural awareness program” may be instituted for staff and students, which is fine. But the lesson is clear: Our young people have no issues with happily coexisting in our melting pot of multi-languages and multi-cultures. It’s the so-called adults who need to come to grips with reality.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Print Print