Anatomy of language shaming

By October 16, 2017Language shaming

This latest exploration in language shaming examines a language shame campaign on the internet and shows how it is used as a tool to suppress political debate and women’s public speech while generalizing a linguistic inferiority complex.

The shaming – what happened?

Shaming comments (Source: Sharma, 2014, p. 24)

On June 10, 2011, the then Minister for Health and Population of Nepal, the Honorable Dharma Shila Chapagain, addressed the UN High-Level Meeting on AIDS in New York. The 7-minute speech was live-streamed on the UN’s multimedia channel and an excerpt was then shown on Kathmandu-based TV station Kantipur. From there a 4-minute clip made its way onto Youtube, where it was titled “Nepali Stupid Speech at UN”. This prompted many Internet users to comment: the sociolinguist Krishna Bal Sharma, in whose 2014 article I first learned about the incident, counted 603 comments in April 2013.

The comments heaped scorn on the way the speech was delivered, as in the following examples:

  • in that forum u are allowed to speak any language not just english but she choose to disgrace our country
  • Wtf bitch… A kid from primary level has a better English than u.
  • Fuck this is why i’m not proud to say i’m nepali
  • Its like letting a nursery kid to read those paragraphs..shame on you…
  • very shameful speech.
  • what’s this? it is just a shame for all nepalese
  • really fucking speech shame on

From these few examples, it is obvious that the comments are vile and constitute an example of language shaming par excellence.

The shamed speech – what was the content?

Shaming comments (Source: Sharma, 2014, p. 26)

From the comments it seems hardly anyone chose to pay attention to the actual content of the speech. Those who did pedantically pointed out non-standard pronunciations (and thereby clearly demonstrated that Capagain’s pronunciation did not actually impede comprehension of the speech), as in this example:

“She is reading totally different words with different meanings, for example she read “republic health” instead of reproductive health. What a funny! Don’t pretend, if you can’t do it. You are embarrassing Nepalese, your party, and making a fool yourself…”

The speech presented an outline of the HIV situation in Nepal, including public health measures and challenges related to the disease. The Minister used the opportunity to particularly highlight gender inequality as a key issue in HIV transmission and sexual and reproductive health more generally:

Women and girls are still the most affected group. In this context, there is a need to fight against gender inequalities, insufficient access to healthcare and services, and all forms of discrimination and violence, including sexual and gender based violence and exploitation. We must ensure their sexual and reproductive health. (Quoted from the official transcript of the speech available from the UN website)

The shamee – who was shamed?

Dharmashila Chapagain (Source: “Women behind Nepal’s constitution – a personal story”)

When Minister Chapagain spoke about gender inequality, she knew what she was talking about from personal experience. Her personal story can be traced from The Nepal Papers edited by Mandira Sharma and Seira Tamang.

Chapagain was born in the late 1970s in a village in Jhapa District in eastern Nepal and discovered from a young age that women and girls were not valued: one of four girls, her father divorced her mother when she failed to bear him a son; and although her mother made sure she could attend school, her education remained patchy and came to an end in her teens. Unsurprising, given that Nepal’s large gender literacy gap has only started to close in the 2000s. This is the lesson about women’s status that Chapagain learned in childhood:

It was tiring and painful to be a woman in the village and I was looking for a way out. […] I felt that as women, my mother, my sisters and I were not wanted. That kind of torture haunt you at night, makes you want to take revenge. (quoted from Sharma & Tamang, 2016)

As a way out, Chapagain joined Nepal’s Maoist insurgency (1996-2006) in her late teens and became a guerilla fighter. By her mid-20s she had distinguished herself and risen to the rank of district-in-charge for Morang District in southeast Nepal. In 2002 she was arrested together with her six-month-old baby. The following five years in prison left their mark on Chapagain: as a consequence of the torture she suffered, she developed chronic health problems, including breathing difficulties and inability to stand and walk for extended periods.

During her five long years in various Nepali prisons, Chapagain was yet again confronted with gender inequality in the form of sexual violence against women.

‘The security forces didn’t care if they were old or young, they even raped a 64-year-old woman after killing her son,’ says Chapagain. ‘What kind of rules of war was the state following?’ She says that the then government saw the Maoists as enemies and wanted to destroy them, and sexual torture was one of the tools they used. (Sharma & Tamang, 2016)

When a Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed with the rebels in 2006, the Maoists became part of the government. In the elections of 2008, Chapagain was elected to parliament and served as Minister for Health and Population. And that’s how she came to deliver that speech at the UN in 2011.

The shamers – who did the shaming?

Locations of the commenters (Source: Sharma, 2014, p. 22)

The shamers are an anonymous mass who individually hide behind their Youtube handles and social media pseudonyms. Sharma (2014) shows that most of them are Nepalis who are, however, not based in Nepal but outside the country. Because of the dire economic situation in Nepal – partly a result of the decade-long Maoist insurgency – Nepalis have been leaving their country in large numbers, and Sharma identifies two distinct streams of emigrants: low-skilled migrant workers whose preferred destinations are the Gulf countries, on the one hand, and tertiary students on the other. The top destinations of the latter include other South-East Asian and Anglophone western countries.

On the basis of their location, commenters mostly seem to belong to the latter group. Shamers and shamee thus share the same nationality but differ on other dimensions:

  • Location: based inside or outside Nepal
  • Education: barely high-school educated vs tertiary educated
  • Gender: to the degree that it is possible to tell, the majority of commenters seem to be male
  • Political orientation: the Maoists’ socialist ideology is an explicit target of criticism and many commenters present it as the underlying cause of Chapagain’s poor English pronunciation.

The commonalities and differences between Chapagain and the commenters mean the delivery of the speech is not only represented as a cause of a shame for the speaker but also for the nation – a shame that the commenters themselves partly share (“it is just a shame for all nepalese”).

Consequences of language shaming

The consequences of a language shame campaign on the internet such as the one described here are twofold and affect both the shamee and the shamers.

To begin with, the shame campaign silences the actual content of the speech and suppresses political debate. Instead of engaging with the merits of the minister’s arguments and her politics, the focus is exclusively on the form in which her speech was delivered.

The fact that many of the comments take the form of specifically sexist insults (“Wtf bitch”) also demonstrates that linguistic shaming is not only about illegitimate speech but about illegitimate speakers. Language shaming is a way to keep people – here: rural women with little formal education – in their place; or to show them “their place” if they have risen above is, as Chapagain has.

Second, a shame campaign such as this one also serves to keep the overall hierarchy of global English in its place. While the commenters presumably believe themselves to speak better English than Chapagain, they do not set themselves up as model of “good English”. That model remains implicitly but firmly outside Nepal, presumably in Anglophone western countries (although some commenters also compare the English of Indian politicians favorably to that of Nepali politicians).

This means that the shame campaign ultimately is as harmful to the shamers as it is to the shamed person: it perpetuates the linguistic and cultural inferiority complex that Franz Fanon identified as an inevitable consequence of colonial international relations:

To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization. […] Every colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, the culture of the mother country. (Fanon, 1967, p. 17f.)

References

Fanon, F. (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Sharma, B. K. (2014). On High Horses: Transnational Nepalis and Language Ideologies on Youtube. Discourse, Context & Media, 4–5, 19-28. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2014.04.001

Sharma, M., & Tamang, S. (2016). A Difficult Transition: The Nepal Papers. New Delhi: Zubaan Publishers.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Katherine Douglas

    Thank you, Ingrid. I agree that those who criticized Minister Chapagain’s speech were “pedantic”. Critics did not care that she actually communicated her message quite successfully. How interesting that Minister Chapagain highlighted gender inequality regarding HIV transmission and sexual and reproductive health, speaking from personal experience(s); and it appears that anonymous, non-Nepali men are finding fault with this message!

    Obviously some of these men feel threatened that Minister Chapagain has risen above what they see as her chosen “station”, and wish to silence both her and the issue of women’s sexual and reproductive health. For them to admit that Chapagain is fundamentally correct in her arguments would be in no way beneficial to them, since they seem quite content with the status quo: men generally have more power than women, and all the advantages this affords. Rather than find fault with the issue, why not find fault with more cosmetic parts of her speech?

    • Eleonora Beolchi

      Hi Katherine,
      I completely agree with your post and it actually made me quite sad to read about such strong insults to a woman (not that it surprises me but still…it’s disgusting). As you say, there is no benefit to these people in admitting that she is right in what she says. What makes me think and at the same hurts me is that as highlighted in the post, some of the heavy comments made are not about the message, but mere insults to the person.. This woman went through some really tough times in her life, violence, prison etc and along with being the Prime Minister of Health, she is a person and regardless of political views, she deserves respect.

      Elly

      • Dee

        I agree with both your comments Katherine and Elly. An important issue has been dismissed, the shamers are focused on an aspect that is superficial in comparison to the topic presented by the minister. Any room for debate or acknowledgement of what the minister has spoken of has been shut down. Furthermore it is disappointing that the shamers are using ‘sexist’ put downs to place further shame on the minister. The minister certainly has been treated disrespectfully by the people posting such comments.

  • Jo.

    I agree that language shaming is a sign of cultural inferiority complex, as very clearly explained in this case. As the shamers express their disapproval towards the lady’s pronunciation, they are actually showing disappointment to the fact that their original nation is not as good as the place they are living now – a comparison, sadly, is based on only one (rather superficial) element of language.

    I’m curious, however, if the speech is delivered in another language, say French, Spanish, Mandarin, how would people react. Though it’s a hypothetical situation, it would be interesting to see how different reactions say about the role of each language on the linguistic world map.

  • lokendra khadka

    the unfortunate thing about language shaming is that some people relate linguistic incompetency with person’s identity, gender, prestige and so on. For example, in comment 17, a commentator had written down about Chapagain’s speech by relating it with national prestige. such kind of comments really impede the learning process of an individual by devaluing their personal and social respects. another important issue on this article is the political polarities. As the minister is of Maoist party, the followers of other political parties did not react it positively for what messages the speaker transmitted to the rest of the world.

  • Ulfath Sadia

    Now a days people are misusing digital media and became so harsh with their language. Some times I reads the comments and get shocked as the people using abusive language are not even native English speakers. I do not feel that A Nepalese or any other person from other language background other than English should care about their English accent. English is spoken internationally and differently in everywhere, and as it is a global language each country can have their own version. I do not thing their is any thing shameful as long as the listener understands the speaker. Now a days people are putting too much emphasis on have American or British accent and harassing people, i think it is totally unnecessary.

  • V.ca

    Wow, I didn’t know what to say at first. I was clearly stunned because it reminded me of how Filipinos react to other Filipinos when they speak “broken” English, particularly ones with wrong grammar and poor intonation patterns. The first reason: to show them “their place”, is something that I agree with. Most of these shamers want to be seen as more superior. This occurs quite often online because these people can hide behind pseudonyms. In a way, it is a form of cyber-bullying where often these people with poor English skills have no access to quality exposure to the other language. It has become rampant in our society because we are known to be a bilingual/multilingual nation, so it is often assumed that you have been given some form of education for English.

  • X_C_X

    The Internet anonymity aspect reminds me of “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, an adage about Internet anonymity which began as a cartoon caption by Peter Steiner and published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993. The cartoon features two dogs: one sitting on a chair in front of a computer, speaking the caption to a second dog sitting on the floor listening to the first. The cartoon symbolises an understanding of Internet privacy that stresses the ability of users to send and receive messages in general anonymity. It is assumed that no one knows since Internet protocols do not force users to identify themselves. The new function shows how Internet communication is liberated from familiar constraints and claims the idea of you can be whoever you what to be and redefine yourself if you want. People don’t look at your body and hear your voice and make assumptions. All they see are your words. This phenomenon is a double edged sword. For the positive aspect, it encourages people who are unable to communicate effectively with people in real lives to successfully socialise through the Internet as anonymity. It also protects people’s right to speak about politics and economy via the form of anonymous letters. Unfortunately, the technology anonymity allows for unethical and dishonest behaviours when people can hide behind it like in this language shaming case.

  • Min Wu KIM

    Thank you for this interesting story. Above all, I can not imagine how harsh life the Nepali minister has gone through. Her experience must be something ordinary people do not experience in their life time. I think the shamer group seems to be one of the ordinary people who live quite well in reasonably developed countries, doing YouTube in their free time. Considering all the career she has been through and the status she has in the government, I don’t think she made a decision to speech in English at UN without considerable thoughts. There can be an issue to consider such as a mistranslation or the effectiveness of English for conveying the content. However, it is shameful that the shamers, most of them were from the country for which the minister came to the front, just focused on the way the minister spoke, not the content she tried to deliver to the world.

  • nawaraj bhandari

    This text is a perfect example of how a person is criticized because she cannot speak English properly in the public functions. As stated by Professor Ingrid Piller in this article, it proves how the Nepalese are hegemonized by the use of English Language. English language to the Nepalese people today has become a matter of pride. How perfectly one can speak English determines how much intelligent a person is. English language is not only a medium of expressing something but a matter of pride and dignity.
    The next issue raised is about Nationalism. ‘She couldn’t speak English properly so she disgraced the nation’, ‘Nepal’s Shame’, ‘bitch’ etc can be analyzed as the commentators are not intelligent rather their nationality is a bubble of soap water. Either they live inside the country or outside their voice seems arrogant and a bit political biased. Use of low class words to criticize ‘Chapagain’ is to scorn her and prove that she knows nothing, and she is not like to be a minister.
    Here language has become a strong tool to demoralize and scold Chapagain, which is most in South East Asian countries. People here become great because they scolded somebody not because they have creativity.

  • Mustaqim Haniru

    Hi Yeji Lee, I could truly relate to you as I have similar situation. Especially in my previous teaching context, many students normally laughed and made fun of their friend who speaks English with a weird accent such as local-language accent or simply a bizarre accent or pronunciation. Thus, it affect greatly to their confidence to speak English or even to engage in classroom practice. Some people in my country, including students are more greatly impressed with the person who can speak English fluenly with American-like or British-like accent compared to those who can’t as they tend to value fluency over massage and content. It is our duty as a language teacher to encourage students to embrace and welcome individuals’ differences, particularly thing that is associated with language capacity.

  • MonyCRole

    Such a shocking story. I hope it is not me overreacting to say this but I guess everyone agrees that whether someone is a native English speaker or not, he/she actually has the right to judge others’ language competence. I could see that in this case, the Minister was bullied for her “terrible” English, for “freedom of speech online” or online violence (it seems that no one needs to take responsibility for the consequences caused by their speech online?), and maybe for her identity of a woman (she looks like vulnerable and easily bullied?).

    However, it should be understood that hurting words have huge negative influence on people who either say or hear them. Especially when a woman is treated with discouraging comments from the outside world, crowned as a “shame”. Those who make the comments could not imagine how serious the problem is. Neglecting this responsible woman who perfectly did her job and addressed a fabulous speech about fighting AIDS in front of the world, online commenters chose to criticize her English language skills and destroy her. It seems that the most frequently mentioned words, gender equality and equal language learning opportunity, are simply words for slogans. These comments, I guess, reflect that ignorance and arrogance construct the biggest barrier of social equality.

  • YUYANG SHE

    Hi, I do understand what you mean. I think the fact that these people making harsh comments stay behind the monitors is somehow related to the diffusion of the responsibility. Very often the focus has been shifted to the unexpected aspects rather than the content. Good intensions do not always have good endings because of the aggressive judgements. People who did the shaming hid behind the monitors and thought that they can say whatever they want and went free. When they feel this way, they may give even more harsh comments to seek and enjoy the attention.

  • fadiyah

    Nepalese people emigrate for a better life. The male part of Nepalese who somehow managed to settle down in South-East Asian and Anglophone western countries dare to criticize the Minister for Health and Population of Nepal, the Honorable Dharma Shila Chapagain because of her bad English speech in UN High-Level Meeting on AIDS in New York. It is not fair to put a shame on a woman whose biography is well familiar with harassment and humiliation. The shame is on them who used to humiliate women in their country. The problem is not Chapagain’s poor English, but their own inferiority complex that a woman rules and protects Nepalese women.

  • 44209150

    It is acknowledged that cases of “language shaming” have gone viral on social media such as on youtube and facebook. The clips I watched was usually to focus on non-English speaking celerities especially their use of English as a center of attention: such examples as Miss Beauty’s speaking English or renowned movies stars’s and singers’ use of English. Those who want to seem to take for granted that these celerities have to speak English well with good pronunciation. Just in case these well-known figures encountered some unexpected minor incidents like mispronunciation or dialect transfer of the mother tongue in English speaking. Without delay, feedbacks and comments for them were available to be posted and criticized. Seemingly, these unfair judgements are confined to a minor aspect of language and have failure to evaluate the whole. English is truly regarded as a powerful language but it is not a tool to gauge the success and competence of a person.

  • TDV

    Thank you for your post. It is a pity that language shaming happens in many circumstances as mentioned in the article that people just concern about how she/he uses English and ignore the content of the speech. This phenomenon also happens commonly in my country – Vietnam. For example, when any celebrities spoke English in a award ceremony overseas or in an interview with a foreign TV, people left a lot of comments with the content of disparaging their English speaking ability. This discourages English learners and makes them lose the confident .

  • MeganLouise

    Online trolls are disgusting in the 21st century and i am almost certain that none of the people who made those comments would have the guts to do it in person to her face. It is so sad that she wanted to speak in English and instead of people praising her for her strong efforts, she received this online abuse. It is important to be encouraging and kind towards those who are learning a new language, and to just be kind to people in general really haha (but i am sure everyone on here already does that!)