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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Middle: The unifying and dividing powers of language


In one of my theory classes this quarter, my professor was discussing how humans develop language apprehension before they develop motor or even verbal capabilities. It made me appreciate how integrated language is in our daily lives, and now I am even more impressed by those who pick up second languages. In today’s globalized community, language is a key factor in communication, but with the blending of cultures, it also becomes a tricky concept to maneuver. Multilingualism is a strong attribute but it’s also an inhibiting factor.

I am bilingual, something most people cannot tell when they first meet me. I speak with an American accent, laced with a couple Californian colloquials and Bay Area slangs. When people find out I also speak fluent Mandarin, the first comment I get is, “Oh, wow, your Chinese is really good. I can’t tell even tell you’re not an ABC (American Born Chinese)!” When I was younger, I thought this reaction was a compliment. I enjoyed looking at the impressed looks on people’s faces because I thought it made me unique and even superior. I thought this was an advantage I had of being in the middle of two cultures.

I was able to put my bilingualism into practice when I started working for the university’s admissions department. As a public advisor, I’m often faced with visitors of all backgrounds, including international students from Asia. Many of them approach me speaking English, and while I do converse with them in English, I can’t help but wonder if it’s more helpful that I make it known to them that I can converse with them in their first language. I am hesitant because I don’t know if it’s offensive that I assume their English speaking skills aren’t sufficient. However, when I do make the switch over to Mandarin, they appreciate the gesture. Over the years, I feel like I have become an indispensable employee (I’m the only person in my department who can converse bilingually) and now I’m less hesitant to propose a conversation in a different language.

While I reaped the benefits of being two cultures’ product, my sister had a different experience. She goes to medical school in Taiwan, and she got the celebrity treatment during her orientation. People thought she was exotic and would approach her by speaking broken English to her. I thought it was a way to break the ice and get to know each other, but she displayed her annoyance. My sister said it was a bit insulting that people automatically assumed she couldn’t speak fluent Mandarin because she was an international student from California. She wanted to be integrated into the culture, but she was instead separated from her peers because she happened to be fluent in another globally-dominant language.

Her experience got me thinking about my own actions. Was there any time that I actually offended someone by trying to speak Mandarin when they were fully capable of conversing with me in English? Was me trying to adjust to their most comfortable language just me butting in and being selfish? While I personally have had only positive experiences, I can’t help but wonder where I stand from a language point of view. I’m automatically classified as either just fluent in English or just fluent in Mandarin. I’ve always thought this stereotype worked to my advantage, but clearly it can also be a nuisance for people like my sister. She presents another side to my understanding of bilingualism. The next time I step into a conversation with someone, perhaps I should think twice about where I’m putting them in my spectrum of language apprehension.

You can reach SANDY CHEN at sichen@ucdavis.edu.


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