Q&A: Professor Abbas Benmanoun on policing language

He's a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and linguistics and vice provost for faculty advancement. Among his research interests is language maintenance and loss within second-generation speakers.

How did you respond personally to the instantly notorious case, from earlier this semester, of a Duke faculty member seeming to challenge Chinese students around their speaking Chinese in a social space?

I’m a linguist, so I have some general understanding of the issues involved with language and how deeply language is woven into one’s identity. When you are in an unfamiliar environment, you are trying to navigate and negotiate a space where you need to become fluent in a different culture and language. So here, at a university in the U.S., how should we think about somebody speaking to fellow nationals in their own language?

They’re not necessarily trying to exclude other people. Rather, they may just be using the linguistic medium that comes naturally to them in that specific context.

Also, mastering academic language does not automatically translate into complete fluency with language in all contexts. Non-native speakers may have no problems delivering an academic talk, but may find it difficult to find the appropriate language to use in a different environment or context.

You grew up in Morocco, did graduate work in the U.K., and then earned your Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. How did those experiences make you think about the pressures on international students?

When I teach, I always share with students how, over time, I’ve changed my mind about certain ideas in my field of research, and that we always need to adopt healthy skepticism toward established ideas and authorities. But some students, both domestic and international, might find it difficult, at the beginning, to do that. So one of the behaviors we have to model as faculty members is that critically engaging accepted ideas is how we develop new knowledge.

Your office is relatively new at Duke. How would you define its work?

One of our mandates is to build diverse intellectual capacity. That’s a notion of diversity writ large. We want to recruit faculty from different backgrounds and different perspectives. But faculty diversity lags student diversity— not just at Duke, but also in higher education generally. We also want to make sure faculty have the resources and the support they need to be effective researchers, teachers, and mentors. A related aspect of this work is to create a healthy climate at Duke; that, of course, is a team effort. How can we create a community where, for example, women feel valued as equal partners? Or students, whether they are from abroad or from the U.S., whether they speak English fluently or not, feel they belong here and have access to the full range of opportunities available at Duke?

People talk a lot about how we should be a “welcoming” institution. What I prefer to say is that we are successful when every student and faculty member feels they have ownership of Duke—they own a piece of the institution.

That sounds very lofty. How do you instill those values?

We focus on the new-faculty orientation as one place to share our values and our best practices. And we organize community-building workshops for faculty leaders. But this is really a long game; culture is not something you can just change overnight. It takes time to have a critical mass, so that, for example, a faculty member will feel it’s expected to step in and say to a colleague, “You know what? Using language or acting in a way that is demeaning to other people is not who we are or want to be as an institution.”

Don’t people, particularly in an academic community, get uneasy around the thought of policing language?

We can still have robust discussions that are respectful, where one acknowledges that the other person has something to contribute. The concern is with actions that demean people, that diminish people. A lot of the things we talk about around climate and culture have to do with disrespectful behavior, behavior that is really inappropriate. There is no interest in challenging academic freedom or compromising free speech. I would invite people to consider another side of the argument: By fostering a culture of respect and inclusion, we open up space for other voices and talent to enrich our academic environment.

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