Published: April 8, 2023

Author: Noel Downing
Advisor: Prof. Kira Hall, TA Emma Bornheimer
Class: Ling 1000: Language and US Society 
Semester: Fall 2022
LURA 2023


The US is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, despite claims of it being a monolingual society. Multiethnic and/or bilingual individuals within the US face societal pressures that can force them to choose between cultures, instead of identifying with both. In the newest edition of English with an Accent, Barrett, Cramer, and McGowan state “People of color who are perceived (usually by white Americans) as ‘articulate’ in ‘standard’ English are seen as somehow suspect, as if they then can’t be legitimate members of their own ethnic group” (2023: 237). These individuals’ linguistic identities often garner various responses from other (often white, monolingual) Americans. Spanish, Russian, and Asian languages, as specific examples, attract attention from monolingual Americans within Colorado. This study, designed as a final project for the course “Language in US Society,” addressed the commentary, non-verbal reactions, and stereotypes multilingual individuals face on a daily basis that make up the value, or what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1991) would call the symbolic capital, of their native languages. I found that individuals who spoke Asian languages in the United States had lower symbolic capital than those who spoke European languages because of the stereotypes that exist for the countries where Asian and Pacific Island languages are traditionally spoken. The following interviews are accounts of the experiences of bilingual individuals as examples of language ideologies in action:

I first interviewed a fluent Spanish speaker under the pseudonym Sydney who grew up speaking Spanish at home, and English with her close friends. Despite the rude treatment Sydney sometimes receives, the opportunities she has to speak Spanish within Colorado are plentiful, often including translating for other Spanish speakers. The ability of individuals to switch between languages is often referred to as code switching. As said by Barrett et al, ”...racism is made worse by the prejudicial (and ignorant) belief that people code-switch because they cannot speak either language. In fact, most types of code-switching require fluency in two languages” (2023: 410). Sydney describes how she often speaks in English when explaining something painful or difficult to discuss, while she uses Spanish when communicating about more comfortable topics. Spanish-speaking individuals may feel more at-home culturally and linguistically in Colorado because of the higher prevalence of Spanish within the Southwest, though Mock Spanish often pervades these interactions. According to linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill (1995), Mock Spanish is a derogatory way of speaking Spanish used by speakers who do not actually know the language.

I next interviewed a Russian speaker, under the pseudonym Natasha, who has been learning Russian since she was a teenager, and is now fluent in both Russian and English. Generally, Natasha’s interactions with others in terms of her bilingualism are relatively positive. Although Russian-accented characters in the media have a history of being both “good” and “bad” (think Dexter’s Lab and Cars 2), Natasha says she garners lots of interest in terms of her bilingualism. While the number of Russian speaking opportunities within Colorado are relatively limited, the acceptance of the language is relatively high, with a Russian community forming within the state and online. It remains to be seen whether this generally positive reception will change as a result of the Ukraine war.

Despite Mandarin and Cantonese being the third most commonly spoken languages in the United States, examples of Mock Asian can be found across the country and throughout its history. I interviewed a 20 year old under the pseudonym Cassie, who is fluent in English, and able to converse in 6 different Asian and Pacific Islander languages. Barrett et al writes that, “Unlike mock forms targeting a specific language (like Spanish), Mock Asian targets East Asians as a monolithic group, demonstrating that the target is an imagined race rather than about any specific language or culture.” The lack of respect for Asian and Pacific Island languages within the United States is prevalent both linguistically and culturally, but contradicted by the number of opportunities Asian language speakers have. Cassie describes a big part of her relationship with her languages as being the blending of multiple languages and code-switching. Because of Cassie’s fluency, she often substitutes words from another language to make a point or talk about something uncomfortable; a feature that indicates her knowledge of multiple vocabularies and cultures. The presence of Mock Asian and the struggle to celebrate multiple cultures is ever-present in the lives of Asian language speakers within the United States, despite (or maybe because of) the popularity of the language.

My study found that individuals who speak Asian languages have lower symbolic capital in the United States compared to those who speak European languages, including Russian. This is due to US-based stereotypes of the countries where these languages are traditionally spoken and productively used. Spanish and Asian language speaking students have a relatively high number of opportunities to communicate in their non-English language, while Russian speaking students tend to have fewer opportunities. This does not determine, however, the reactions Coloradans have to non-English languages. According to my interviews, even Spanish tends to receive more positive interest and friend/family support compared to Asian and Pacific Island languages. Overall, the monolingual facade of the United States instigates racial discourse in various methods and intensities, which can be seen prominently at an individual level.


Image Credit 

  1. The New Yorker


  1. Barrett, Rusty, Jennifer Cramer, and Kevin B. McGowan (2023). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States, 3rd edition Routledge.
  2. Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power, Harvard University Press.
  3. Hill, Jane (1995). Mock Spanish: A Site for the Indexical Reproduction of Racism in American English https://language–