On Monday, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith questioned whether baseball’s “box office appeal” was harmed by the fact that star player Shohei Ohtani — a “once-in-a-century” player “better than Babe Ruth” (Sports Illustrated) — uses a translator for English-language interviews. Ohtani, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Angels, is Japanese and speaks Japanese as his first language. “The fact that you got a foreign player that doesn’t speak English, believe it or not, I think contributes to harming the game to some degree,” Smith said. “It needs to be someone like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, those guys. And unfortunately at this point in time, that’s not the case.”
These remarks suggest that the most talented player of his generation may be a liability to his sport purely because English isn’t his first language, causing a firestorm of criticism. That night, Smith offered a written apology describing his comments as “insensitive and regrettable” (USA Today).
These days, more than one in four Major League Baseball players hail from outside the United States. Bilingual interpreters facilitate communication between Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, or Korean-speaking players and English-speaking teammates, coaches, and reporters. It’s not that athletes living in the United States and operating in largely English-only environments don’t speak English at all. For example, Ohtani gave a two-minute speech to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America exclusively in English in 2019 (MSN). Interpreters nonetheless help professional athletes to navigate the intricacies of sports terminology and slang as well as public appearances recorded for posterity (Sports Illustrated).
This issue is larger than one athlete and one commentator. Discrimination based on language is pervasive in American society, and language justice is a crucial component of racial justice.
Alongside the legacy of British imperialism, contemporary American power ensures that U.S. movies, soldiers, tourists, and corporations now circle the globe. Accordingly, is English the now most commonly studied foreign language in the world (Babbel, Washington Post).
This overreach and wealth hoarding forced others to learn English.It also discouraged English-speaking Americans from any pressures to pick up a second language. Three out of four Americans only speak English (YouGov). Though the United States has no official language, immigrants are pressured to adopt fluent, unaccented American English as a token of assimilation and belonging. A Philly cheesesteak shop proudly displayed a sign reading “This is AMERICA. Speak English when ordering” sign for a decade (Billy Penn). Department store shoppers (NBC), pedestrians (KIRO 7), and high school students (NBC) have all been accosted for having the audacity to speak Spanish in public. People attacked for speaking a second language may very well speak conversational or fluent English with English-speaking friends, coworkers, managers, and neighbors. They may speak English when talking to family members inside their own homes. But when confronted for speaking a non-English language in public, their bilingualism is a liability.
Though Smith’s comment was thoughtlessly worded, his underlying point may have actually been correct. There are almost certainly baseball fans less enthused with the sport now that its leading player’s primary language is different than their own.
The cruel irony is that for privileged white families, bilingualism is only ever an asset. As the well-off compete to ensure their children’s place in selective universities, many have latched on to multilingualism as a way to make sure their kids get ahead. To convince admissions officers that their children are competitive aspiring “global citizens,” parents now apply for private Mandarin immersion programs for toddlers of 18 months (LePort). A Chinese person speaking Mandarin and accented English is a failure of assimilation. A white child speaking English and shoddy Mandarin is a prodigy.
The elite appetite for bilingualism even pushes English learners (ELs) out of multilingual schools designed for their benefit. “Left unchecked, demand from privileged, English-dominant families can push ELs and their families out of multilingual schools,” read one report, “and convert two-way dual-immersion programs into one-way programs that exclusively serve English-speaking children” (The Atlantic).
This issue further exacerbates inequities Even in progressive spaces, language is often an afterthought. Many organizations make all of their decisions in English. Though a flier might be translated into another language, there is often no real plan to incorporate non-English speakers into the organizational structure.
The alternative to English-only ignorance and linguistic tokenization is language justice. Trained interpreters should translate between languages so that all can participate in collective spaces. Translation should not be a one-way street; spaces should be truly multilingual. Organizations and workplaces need to recognize that translation is a highly technical skill: materials should not be translated by any bilingual speaker at hand or, even worse, by translation software (NESFP). Ensuring that everyone is able to communicate with their language or dialect is a way to “disrupt privilege and colonization” and “challenging English dominance” (Move to End Violence). To refuse to prioritize language justice, on the other hand, perpetuates all of those things.
We need to build language justice.
Non-English speakers are attacked for publicly speaking another language. Some are bi- or multilingual.
When white Americans become bilingual, it can boost their academic and career profiles. When others are bilingual, it’s seen as a liability.
Language justice means creating spaces where we can all speak in the language we’re most comfortable with.