How language forms cultural identity

    Telling people that I’m a Journalism and English Literature double major can lead to some surprised reactions.

    I’ve realized since college started that some people don’t expect that from an ethnically Chinese international student. I’ve been asked about how I cope with two English-intensive majors. Others assume that I read Shakespeare in Chinese rather than in English. I’ve even been interviewed about my experience as a foreign student attending Medill for a journalism final project.

    The assumptions that some people have about my language preferences have sparked a minor identity crisis. I started thinking about whether it’s “normal” or even “natural” for an ethnically Chinese person to speak better English than Chinese. My home, Singapore, where most people speak at least two languages, is an interesting case study where I contemplate why we prefer some languages over others. The same debate I have about the link between language and ethnicity is also being played out in political and social spheres back home. 

    I lived all my life in Singapore, a tiny but affluent island city-state which has no native population but is composed of a potpourri of multi-generational Chinese, Malay and Indian immigrants who set up home there more than a hundred years ago after British colonization. After gaining independence in 1965, the government decided that English would be the first language of all Singaporeans, while learning a second language, usually the one that corresponds to our ethnicity, would come second. 

    Like most Singaporeans I learned two languages growing up, neither of them native to my country. Both were taught in the schools I attended, which were, like every school in Singapore, English-medium. But I always preferred English.

    I certainly am not alone in Singapore, where the issue of language preference has turned political. To the Singapore government, language preference is attributed to usage in spheres like the home and public life. According to 2010 census data, 52 percent of all the Chinese people living in Singapore speak English at home. It also doesn’t help that since English is the main language for business, schools and practically every public sphere, most people have daily contact to it — it's much easier to isolate ourselves from our mother tongue by simply not being in circles where it's more commonly spoken. There has been a long running Singapore government initiative, Speak Mandarin Campaign, to get people to speak Mandarin in their daily lives. The campaign aims to create an environment that encourages more frequent use of the language.

    In the United States, the idea that the language people primarily use during their childhood is the one they'd prefer later in life would probably explain why many at Northwestern would probably agree that they don’t find using the second language they picked up in high school all too intuitive.

    That doesn't fully explain why I preferred English. My parents got me learning the two languages by simply speaking both at home and teaching me to read both, but my preference was clear the moment I set my eyes on the bookshelves at home — when I had no conception of what the written word was.

    If 4-year-olds could fall in love, I fell hard for the written English word the moment I learned to read it.

    I pored over anything I could get my little hands on — books from the local library, old magazine subscriptions, classics my parents bought at the local bookstore. I was an unstoppable, bespectacled little force, traveling to many worlds with the turn of the page. I think, dream and speak in English.

    I never felt like I was shortchanged in any way language-wise before coming to college. Singapore is famous for its math and science proficiency, but in high school English classes, I read everything from Edgar Allen Poe to Tennessee Williams, who became the subject of my 3,000-word English senior honors thesis.

    Meanwhile, I painstakingly memorized fancy Chinese terms from school-provided sample essays so that I could sound more intelligent during my exams. I can string a Chinese sentence together, but it never rolled off my tongue as easily as English.

    For me, there has never been a link between skin color and language. Back in multi-ethnic Singapore, I have ethnically Chinese friends who declare that they hate Chinese even after more than 10 years of learning it, and I have Indian friends who speak Chinese fluently. I'd say that many of my friends develop a language preference as a child and mostly stick to it afterwards, while always being a little less comfortable with the other. Growing up, I never felt like people in my generation there was an expectation to speak Chinese well. 

    As I thought about the relationship between ethnicity and language, I realized that it has more to do with an unspoken expectation to be proficient at "your own language" than a causal relationship between them. With my Anglicized accent and un-practiced spoken Chinese, I've definitely felt societal pressure back home to improve. I always believed we'd be laughed straight out of China if ethnically Chinese Singaporeans who couldn't speak the language well tried to do business there — If the Chinese realized we shared the same ethnicity but couldn't speak the same language, we wouldn't really be Chinese then, in their eyes (or so my high school teachers said, to emphasize the importance of the language). 

    That's why the story of Singapore actor and funnyman Hossan Leong so resonates as an example that you don't need to be good at Chinese to succeed, but people expect you to be able to speak it anyway. He is fluent in English and French, but he was expelled from high school because he failed his Chinese exams too many times (Singaporeans have to pass their second language at high school level to be eligible for local universities). He is one example of what some Singaporeans would call a "banana," a slang term that refers to an ethnically Chinese person who cannot speak Chinese well. It is derived from the idea that a banana is yellow on the outside and white on the inside. This shows that even though Singaporeans recognize a clear-cut duality between skin color and language preference, the average man on the street believes that if you're Chinese, you should be able to speak Chinese. But even though Leong is Chinese ethnically, he still continued to have problems with the Chinese language during his acting career.

    Leong reaffirms my belief that we’re simply wired to prefer some languages over than others. I’ve never understood why, as a 4-year-old, English felt as natural as a slipping on a perfectly tailor-made glove, while Chinese has always felt foreign. Leong may not be able to explain his preference either.

    Maybe it’s simply because I loved the way letters of the alphabet could be jumbled up and combined like Leggos to form words with entirely distinct meanings. On the other hand, maybe I didn’t like how each Chinese word is a pictogram, since I’m not a very visually or aesthetically inclined person.

    I am an anomaly because I grew up in a city learning two foreign languages native to two other, different countries. I don’t think I’ll ever know why I simply preferred one over the other, but I’m certain it’s got nothing to do with my ethnicity. Even with this minor identity crisis, regardless of which side of the world I happen to be on and the language I need to use, I always know I’ll be writing.


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