Immigrants can use big words too


By Shankari Sureshbabu, Columnist

I moved from India when I was 6. At the time, I knew three languages: English, Tamil and Malayalam.

Looking back, I should have been really proud of this. I like to talk, and being a polyglot meant I could bother more people. When I moved here, I knew my multiplication tables and wrote in neat cursive that had been taught to me back home.

Whenever I felt self-conscious about having an accent or not really understanding colloquial sayings that the cool kids would use, I remembered I was just happy that I could write my p’s the correct way while the rest of the students would write them backwards — back in those wonderful times when knowing the alphabet was an accomplishment.

In my life, I’ve always been really lucky. My teachers have never been anything but supportive — even that one time I yelled “hooker” in my English class freshman year: sorry Mr. McWhorter. With their help, now I have the power to boldly write whatever I want, such as split infinitives and run-on sentences.

Not everyone is so lucky. Recently, Tiffany Martinez, a Latina college student at Suffolk University in Boston, posted a powerful response to being accused of plagiarism simply because she used the word “hence” in a paper.

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Her professor circled the word and noted, “This is not your word” next to it. The teacher then handed it back and said, “This is not your language”.

Martinez is evidently a wonderful student — a McNair fellow and student scholar with plenty of experience behind her — so she was stunned that she was accused of plagiarism. Instead of commending her on a job well done, the teacher assumed that there was no way that Martinez could have written it herself without “cutting and pasting.”

Martinez later wrote in her blog post reacting to the event, “My last name and appearance immediately instills a set of biases before I have the chance to open my mouth.” 

My personal linguistic gap was bridged over time, but there were still stumbles and missteps on my journey to getting an honorary doctorate in Americana. I remember I kept mispronouncing my v’s, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what a nerd or a geek was until well into middle school (clearly, I was also a social butterfly).

These days, I’m pretty confident with my language skills. I took creative writing courses and linguistics courses (plus AP Lang and AP Lit which were an unforgettable brand of hellish fun), and eventually relented: I just liked English.  I still know Tamil and Malayalam, but English was different. I could make up dumb words or tell stupid jokes in English. I talked, thought and dreamed in English. I felt that it was my language, even as an Indian.

I’ve been blessed enough to never be accused of cheating or turning in someone else’s words. But really, it shouldn’t be a blessing at all: it should be a right. The mere notion that Martinez, who for the record has already been published in a journal, has to defend her academic integrity is a shame. She is clearly capable, and her professor’s disbelief is ridiculous.

Teachers, despite what their ridiculously low salaries might indicate, are a powerful influence on our nation’s children. Experiences like the one Martinez had can shape a child a lot more than expected.

I still remember being yelled at by my second grade teacher for drawing apples the wrong color. Though, to be fair, it was a really dumb worksheet, and it could be argued that the color of those apples proved pretty inconsequential to my current life.

Teachers are typically among the most important people in children’s lives so it’s important that they are supportive and rewarding instead of judgmental and alienating. All it takes is a few simple words to really change a child’s perspective of themselves for the rest of their lives. They, of all people, should know the value of their language.

I’ve been luckier than most immigrants when dealing with potential language barriers. Martinez’s story shows that there are still people in this seemingly tolerant nation, the melting pot that is America, that still try to bring bright young students down simply because of their ethnicity.

Though Tamil and Malayalam are important pieces of my life, it is English that I choose to use to define myself.

Hence, for all intents and purposes, it is my language. If Tiffany Martinez chooses it to be hers as well, that decision should be respected and not questioned.

Shankari is a sophomore in LAS. 

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