English fluency is crucial to careers

By Guzi He, Columnist

A professor at Duke University was dismissed earlier this month after sending a mass email in which she urged students from China to use English “100 percent of the time.” Megan Neely, former director of studies at Duke’s biostatistics master’s program, went so far as to say the students were being impolite for having “a conversation that not everyone on the floor can understand.”

Why the university sacked her needs no further explanation. What is important is, despite being offensive in her delivery, the professor spelled out an inconvenient truth: English proficiency is paramount for those wanting to succeed in America.

In an apology, the school’s dean reassured students their “career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language (they) use outside the classroom.” Yet the statement never mentioned faculty in American colleges have little, if any, command of foreign languages.

If Asians and Pacific Islanders make up only 10 percent of all post-secondary educators in 2018, the number of professors who actually know Chinese is negligible, since not all Asian-Americans are of Chinese origin. The assumption also works for Hindi, French or any other language international students might speak. Thus, most faculty members trying to write a recommendation could hardly talk with, much less sit down and get to know, international students unless they perfect their English.

Those with poor English will also struggle in the U.S. job market. A 2013 study showed U.S. citizens with limited English proficiency tend to work in manual, labor-intensive fields such as construction, maintenance and personal care. The reason is simple: The well-paid office worker conducting her services in the most widely used language will appeal to the most clients. Unless accommodating specific clients, why would any business hire trade representatives, managers or public relations specialists who cannot communicate fluently in English when it is estimated at least 78.2 percent of the U.S. population understands the language?

Most international students major in engineering, science and liberal arts. As such, they would not be allowed to work in industries requiring little English even if they wanted to. This is due to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requiring all non-citizens without permanent residency holding American college degrees get jobs relevant to their field of study before they can get an H-1B work visa to remain in the U.S.

Besides, learning English is part of the American experience. If America is truly home to diversity and inclusion, refusing to learn about a language other than one’s own is the exact opposite of what this country stands for. Assuming international students do want to assimilate because many feel miserable having no local support, to deny themselves interaction with Americans who overwhelmingly use English regardless of race or ethnicity isn’t going to help.

It is not intolerant to ask someone to learn English as long as no one is asking him to quit using his native language. For Neely, advocating the latter became her undoing. She was doomed the moment she breached the line between private and public life. No international student should be made to speak English 24/7. But there is no harm in trying to use it more often.

Guzi is a freshman in LAS.

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