King’s College London
I currently work at King’s College London as a researcher in education. My experience of multilingualism and awareness of its complexities inextricably start with my personal story, but researching in this area made me more aware of, and helped me come to better understand and appreciate, multilingualism and my own experiences.
English is my dominant language, but Cantonese Chinese was my home language as a child in Hong Kong. During my childhood, Hong Kong was considered a diglossic without bilingualism society (Luke & Richards, 1982), where English knowledge held high status. I initially learned both Chinese and (British) English at school; I was in a privileged position that English later became the main language of my education. After I moved to California in my teens, I acquired an American accent and vocabulary as a desperate attempt to fit in. I would never forget this incident in one of my lessons – I sat next to two American-born Chinese (ABC) girls, and they were making disparaging comments on how Hong Kong girls were trying to dress like ‘us’ – ABCs. I of course just kept quiet. My fluent English and newly adopted accent meant I successfully ‘passed’ as an ABC and was not considered as a ‘FOB’ (Fresh Off the Boat), a loaded and highly contested in-group term ‘to differentiate new arrivals from those who have learned requisite cultural and linguistic codes’ (Shankar 2008:270) within the Asian-American communities. Speaking Chinese or speaking Chinese accented-English signified ‘foreignness’, and now looking back I realise that I internalised such harmful discourse. I didn’t value bi/multilingualism much in those days. The compulsion to hide my bilingualism (and my identity) lessened as I got older; however, it wasn’t something I thought of much because I saw my Chinese skills as only useful for communications within family circles with older folks.
My continent hopping continued. I ended up in the UK and later landed in academic research by chance as I was hired to work on an ESRC-funded project on Chinese complementary schooling. One of the requirements of the job was the ability to speak Cantonese as the project involved interviewing some of the participants in Cantonese at these community-based, weekend Chinese heritage language schools in England. While I spoke to most the student interviewees in English, I communicated with some of the parents and staff interviewees in Cantonese. And although I could speak fluent Cantonese, I had never used Chinese for work professionally before working on this project. I soon also realised that not only did I have to switch between languages, but I also had to adjust my cultural perspectives. There are debates whether people who speak two (or more) languages change their personality when they change language (e.g. Lunda et al, 2008; Grosjean, 2010). I personally felt that I definitely had to behave both bilingually and biculturally. I have to admit that I felt more at ease speaking to the students than adults. Additionally, I found that my ability to speak Cantonese, as well as my ethnic background, often played a significant role in gaining access and trust. I could be instantly viewed as an ‘insider’ or ‘one of them’, even though our backgrounds and viewpoints could in fact be very different; after all, the British Chinese ‘community’ is incredibly diverse culturally and linguistically.
This project led me to my own doctoral research study, and I chose to look at British Chinese young people who were less connected to Chinese language(s), those who did not attend or stay on at Chinese schools. The idea also came from reading Ien Ang’s book, ‘On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West’, which discusses language, diasporic identifications and post-modern ethnicity. My original intention was to talk to young people who did not speak any or much Chinese. However, the definition of ‘not much Chinese’ and my own understanding of it evolved over time during my recruitment and data collection. I met some young people who could understand Chinese but didn’t want to, or didn’t feel confident to, speak it. I also encountered some who used Chinese more when younger and felt their Chinese knowledge had ‘gone down’ as they got into secondary education. I became highly aware of the fluidity and complexity of the different aspects of heritage language development – becoming bi/multilingual is an on-going process for some of these young people. Again, I saw complex links between languages and their British/Chinese/other identities.
In working on these two studies and living in super-diverse London, I not only explored issues relating to British Chinese young people, but was also forced to examine my own identities and experiences of multilingualism. I’ve learnt to appreciate the diversity of Chinese languages as well as other languages, and of course to embrace my wonderful first home language, Cantonese. 🙂 And my academic and personal explorations on the relationship between language and identity continue!
Ang, I. (2001). On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West. London: Routledge
Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Luke, K. and Richards, J. (1982). English in Hong Kong: functions and status. English Worldwide, 3 (1), 47-64.
Luna, D., Ringberg, T., and Peracchio, L. (2008). One individual, two identities: Frame switching among biculturals. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(2), 279-293.
Shankar, S. (2008). ‘Speaking like a model minority: “FOB” styles, gender, and racial meanings among Desi teens in Silicon Valley.’ Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 18(2): 268–89.