Thursday, September 15, 2011

Miss Universal English: The Language of Beauty, The Beauty of Language

Whilst changing the channel on September 13th 2011, I stumbled across the 2011 Miss Universe pageant.  When they announced that Miss Angola, Leila Luliana da Costa Vieira Lopes, was a finalist and I saw she was getting a lot of the audience support, I decided to watch it until the end to see if the crown would for the fourth time, land on the continent (South Africa, 1978; Namibia, 1992; and Botswana, 1999). Although Miss Angola had a relatively small delegation of 3 people in the audience, I also noticed that she was popular and had support from most the audience and rightfully so. She was attractive, congenial, and seemed to genuinely be ‘true to herself’. So out of curiosity, I went to the web to find out why she was the clear crowd favorite from the beginning and what people were saying about Miss Lopes.

Amongst the responses were the usual and customary supportive comments that one would expect ‘she’s beautiful’, ‘congratulations’ ‘she deserved it’. There were also the comments from those that had other favorites, ‘I liked Miss China’…or ‘Ukraine was my favorite’ etc… The comments that I didn’t expect to find was commentary over her response to the Q&A since she had answered it decently enough.

Question: “If you could change one of your physical characteristics, which one would it be and why?”
Lopes answered: “Thank God, I’m very well satisfied with the way God created me and I would not change a thing. I consider myself a woman with inner beauty. I have my principles. I have acquired many wonderful principles from my family and I plan to follow this through the rest of my life.”

The comments weren’t largely directed towards the content her answer, but towards her decision to deliver her response in Portuguese and through the use of an interpreter. Even though I knew she was from Angola, I thought she would most likely answer the question in English since most Africans are multilingual and are usually conversant in one of the ‘International’ languages like English or French. At international events, African representatives like presidents, government officials, scholars etc…do not use interpreters when speaking to international audiences unless they do so purposefully or strategically. Indeed, the language that one chooses to use in today’s society can be highly political, contributing to how others are going to perceive, and subsequently treat you. For Africans who often get the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ stereotype, language here, is used as a form of cultural imperialism  and this makes it even more problematic. So most of the time, we find African representatives feeling that they need to speak English in order to legitimize their ideas, sound intelligent, or simply to be taken seriously by their western counterparts. There seems to be a stigma towards Africans that do not speak the 'Queens English', which is an extension of the colonial cultural legacy. There is also often the associated assumption by non-Africans that one’s ability to speak English is a reflection of one’s ability to think. These negative perceptions seem to be directed disproportionally at Africans (no one vehemently faults Japanese, Polish, Brazilian, French or Iraqi for the same inability). This stigma towards Africa is reflected through comments made by the general public online websites after the pageant (See Comments: Showbizblog, Tumblr, Pinoyhalo, Ricky).

According to the commentary across these blogs, there was a pattern of suggestions from the general public that was advocating an ‘English’-only language policy for pageants. This was problematic because this was not the ‘Miss England” pageant, and the idea that anyone should conform to a hegemonic language at an international event being held in Latin America is ludicrous. It was also problematic that some of these comments were coming form voices in the Global South – notably, the Spanish speaking Philippines (Some going as far as suggesting that Miss Philippines Shamcey Supsup, should have been picked because “she spoke English” (See: Pinoyhalo). For Miss Angola, these comments were compounded by her African identity - Some non-Portuguese speaking, were making reference to her speaking her “native” language over an “international” language (Native here, being a code for ‘African’).  They thought she was speaking an indigenous Bantu language of Angola and not the “international” Portuguese language! It is clear from their comments that because she was speaking in her “African” native tongue, this act being frowned upon –These commentators seemed more fixated on the Angolan’s failure to speak English because she was Angolan. It didn’t seem that there real interest was promoting English. There interests were prompting English relative to an African language. Had they known it was Portuguese, I wondered if they would have made assertions over the importance of speaking an “international” language (as opposed to an African one)? I wondered if the same comments were made for the reigning Miss Mexico, Ximena Navarrete, when she won and if she perhaps, spoke in Spanish during her Question and Answer portion. Notably, one such comment (that had 13 ‘likes’) came from readers of the online version of the Spanish language television network, Telemundo, which prides itself for its substantial Spanish language programming. I didn’t discount that there may have been other factors. I thought about how much this had to do with the persistence of mental enslavement for previously colonized peoples. As an example, it many have been an epitome or reflection of how people in a country like the Philippines viewed Filipino English speakers - in high esteem and at the detriment of indigenous languages like Tagalog or Filipino. 

Statements regarding the idea that the translator somehow  “improved” her answer and that her central idea somehow 'gained intelligence' through translation also surfaced. Based on this, there are clear associations that people make about of the ability to speak English and perceived Intelligence.  Ability to speak the English language though is not a reflection of intelligence. If Lopes wanted to speak in Umbundu, or Kikongo, she should have the universal right to do so without backlash or assumptions about her intelligence or linguistic abilities. It is often rare that I hear the same demands to speak English being made to German, French or Portuguese candidates in “international” competitions. If West Europeans are exempt from this lingual scrutiny why are people from the global south subjected to it? Why do people from the global South subject each other to it as well? This keeps these languages (including Portuguese) that were imposed on people dominant in the world. Some argued that most people understand English and that’s why they advocated this, but going by that logic, Miss Universe should be broadcast in the beautiful language of Madarin (See: the top 10 languages). 

Its clear was that because Lopes chose to speak in Portuguese, everyone further assumed that she could not speak English – even those on the blogs that defended her right to speak the language of her choice. After some investigation, I discovered that Miss Angola is a business management student at a university in England where she has been residing for a few years. She was also Miss Angola – UK in 2010. As a true diplomat and strategist, Miss Angola made a sound decision and showed her linguistic beauty by speaking to a room filled with majority Portuguese speakers in Portuguese!

There are around 5000 languages in use today. There is no universal language. There shouldn't be one. language is a reflection of ones culture (See: Sapir Whorf hypothesis). Differences in language lead to differences in experience, thought and ideas. Requiring the world to speak English will lead to a world where everyone think and act like the English. The problem with this being that they are not all English and will never be English. The other problem with that is that it will suppress ideas that can only manifest or be understood in the context of a particular language, and hence culture. The beauty of this world is that we all speak different languages and no one should be forced to speak another.

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