Kristine Sudbeck is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently completing her dissertation, which is a critical autoethnography of her experiences learning Ho-Chunk and Omaha– two languages indigenous to what is now considered the United States. Much of her work critically examines the role of equity in schooling experiences, crossing lines of difference on a variety of reified social categories. She also serves as a mentor for graduate students in the Indigenous Roots Teacher Education Program at her university.
I grew up in a small farming community in northeast Nebraska (central United States), where almost all of us speak English as our first language, and a particular variety of English at that. We call carbonated beverages ‘pop’. Our linguistic repertoires also include words like ‘tavern’ that signify a particular type of loose meat sandwich (similar, but not the same as a sloppy joe), rather than a place that serves alcoholic beverages. Since I was born and raised on a farm, I can also tell you the difference between a steer, bull, heifer and cow. The term ‘yield’ was not only something found on a red triangle sign while driving, but was also used to refer to the amount of crops harvested.
My ancestors did not always speak English, however. Having a mother as a genealogist, I am privy to a lot of information about the generations that came before me, many of which came from Germany. For example, I learned that my great grandfather even moved to my hometown as a German-English translator to work for the lumber yard and neighboring railroad. Due to the xenophobic tendencies towards Germans in the United States surrounding World War I and II, however, the German language became forbidden in schools[i]. German was no longer passed down to each generation. In fact, the only German words and phrases I heard growing up were curse words that my grandmother would let slip out when she burned her hand in the kitchen.
With German lost as my ancestral language, I began studying Spanish as a second language when I reached high school age. This was the first opportunity I had to begin learning another language in school. I studied Spanish for all four years of secondary school, and four more years in college. During this time, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Costa Rica and travel to other Spanish dominant countries such as Spain, Nicaragua and Panama. While enrolled at La Universidad Nacional, I lived with a host family and all of my courses were in Spanish. My language skills developed overtime and I even began thinking and dreaming in Spanish. Despite my Spanish fluency, many people I met and interacted with for the first time would look at me and begin conversing in English. Sometimes, I would respond in Spanish despite their assumptions. I was disheartened by these interactions because I wanted to practice my Spanish as much as possible. But in this context, others saw my blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin to signify that I was an English-speaking gringa. They weren’t wrong, I suppose… English is my first language.
This assumed link between my visible identity and linguistic repertoire became evermore apparent during the summer of 2013, when I took part in a travel study experience in South Africa. With the lingering history of apartheid in South Africa, I noticed that one’s race and language still hold meaning. Walking through the book store at the University of Pretoria, one of the saleswomen approached me and began speaking in Afrikaans. Perhaps she was asking if I needed help finding anything, but all that remained was such a confused look on my face with no words to respond. Seeing my response, baffled and silent, she quickly switched to English. During my three weeks in South Africa, my linguistic identity continued to be incorrectly assumed as Afrikaans. In this post-apartheid South African context, my blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin were perceived by others as having an association with the history of Dutch colonization. I found this significant, especially after having multiple conversations with fellow southern African classmates about how Afrikaans continues to be perceived by some as a language of the oppressive white government during apartheid.
Reflecting back on these experiences, it appears that there are two common threads consistent throughout. I have begun to grasp the complexity of my own identity, both visibly and audibly. My visible (i.e., racial) identity remains largely invisible due to the power I am afforded in the global society. Whether I am in my relatively homogenous community in northeast Nebraska, at the bus stop in Costa Rica, or in a book store in South Africa– my visible identity is positioned in a hierarchy of power. And with that power, comes privilege.
Interestingly enough, the power that comes with my blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin is also presumed by others to mean that my linguistic identity should also hold the same privilege. In my small farming community in the center of the United States, my ancestral language of German was lost at the expense of the dominant colonizer’s language (i.e. in this context, English). In doing so, part of my linguistic identity was erased. My ancestors were forced to assimilate, and so my first language became English. It wasn’t until I traveled to South Africa and was mistaken as an Afrikaans speaker, however, that I truly understood the powerful perceived link between how one looks and how one sounds. After critically reflecting on my own personal experience, I am beginning to attribute this to the damaging effects of colonization. Yet, I am still left with more questions than I am answers. Why must everyone conform to learning the colonizer’s language? While I realize the importance of having a common language as a lingua franca to be able to communicate across these differing linguistic repertoires, must it always be to privilege the already privileged?
[i] For more information, see the U.S. Supreme Court Case Meyer v Nebraska (1924) and Sudbeck (2015).