You are not your language. Right?

You are not your language. Right?


But let me elaborate.

I’m a fan of language. Sometimes to the point of reifying it. But I do have some grounds for seeing how important language is to identity, education, and diffusing conflict. Having worked as an English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher for more than fourteen years in China, I believe I’ve developed some useful insights into how language shapes us and the ways in which it sometimes prejudices us both inside the classroom and out.

First, however, let’s talk about you.

You are you, whatever bundle of identities, spectrums, packages, and articulations that is. You’re more or less embodied, in spite of the growing intrusion of algorithms, AI, and our increasingly device dependent existences.

You are you, and you know at least one language and you likely read English, unless you’ve machine translated this.

All of this, apart from the knowing English bit, makes you a highly unique species. You are not just an animal; you are a member of the very special homo sapiens.

So far so good.

But are you different because of your language? Does your language control you? Limit you? Or, rather, does it limit others? Those whom you don’t understand?

Despite the seemingly vast differences between languages, we are all far more alike than we are different. In my own bilingual family, I see that full well. My wife speaks several versions of Chinese in addition to English, and my children do too. I’ve only got some Putonghua (the main “version” on the mainland, in Taiwan, and Singapore) and English. My wife and I generally communicate in English, and I’ve learned I have to be cognizant that I have home-turf advantage, so to speak. She graciously argues in English! But at the end of the day, many, if not most, of our conflicts are due to mistakes in communication because we are two different people. This is not much different from the challenges that my English speaking parents and her Chinese speaking parents face.

In multilingual relationships, the norm for the world, the owness is on both parties to accommodate and moderate for misunderstandings. In groups with more than one language present, the highest common denominator of a language is usually adopted. For example, when my in-laws have me in the conversation, or even our kids, they usually use Putonghua, but then they will quickly revert to their heart-language, a regional dialect called Huizhouese, when it’s known all speakers can speak it.

The changing status of one lingua franca, English

Very often in our globalized world, cosmopolitanism requires a knowledge of English, and so when there is a mixed group of people, English is quite often the highest common denominator, just as Putonghua is the lingua franca on the mainland.

This is all fine, and totally normal. Selecting the most useful language for a group of people is merely a pragmatic response to a question of communication. But challenges can emerge when there is a disparity between the individual proficiencies of the group’s lingua franca or the status of the speakers.

The disparity can be especially striking when there is a native Anglophone speaker using English with others for whom English is not a first language. Historically, there has been a close correlation between the status of that native speaker and the others within the group. But this is changing. When the majority of Oxbridge and Harvard postgraduate students are from outside of the UK and the US, and when bilingual international students help to fund post-secondary schools around the Anglo-West. The Anglo advantage, and with it the built-in status of English, or even a kind of English, is losing its strength.

A positive consequence is that English is being gradually relegated to a position of greater neutrality. It’s just becoming a language. Important. Useful. If not the last lingua franca. A language with many full varieties.

If this is indeed the trend, and I believe it is, then I think it’s very good news. For Anglophones, it’s a reorienting, and re-realizing of an older status-quo, greater level of multilingualism. Now ideas can be measured on their worth instead of their grammaticity. But most importantly, it means that people may no longer have to be defined by how well they speak English. Of course this is not universally true, and there will remain regional lingua francas and other higher status languages, but with English at least, we may be moving forward.

Our languages, an accident of circumstance

But if the language we speak is an accident of history, a product of our parents’ decisions, then we should not infer too much significance from this. My wife can only claim credit for learning one language, English, even though she can speak four Chinese dialects. Even Northern Chinese sometimes wish for this southern ability. However, if my wife had been born in Canada, it’s unlikely she would have retained all of them, and her acquisition of English would instead, be flawless.

In fact I have Canadian friends whose parents and grandparents were from China but who cannot speak Chinese. Does this make them more Canadian? Less Chinese?

I have Ghanaian friends in Guangzhou whose children are fluent in Chinese but who struggle to speak the Akan of their parents.

We had friends whose husband is French, but ethnically Chinese. The wife is from Southern China, so comfortable in Cantonese. Their kids had been exposed to Putonghua, Cantonese, French, and now English. The husband most closely identifies with French, having spent most of his life there. But his wife doesn’t speak any French. I spoke English with him because his English trumped my Chinese, and my French. But I spoke Putonghua with his wife.

I’ll never forget my first time in Hong Kong when I was staying at the infamous Chung King Mansions. While on my way to have lunch at a Pakistani-Indian restaurant, I watched as a Chinese looking woman walked into a Sari shop and started speaking with the Indian owner in fluent Hindi. She then switched to Hakka with her friend. In Toronto, I know Hakka speaking Chinese who grew up in India and speak English with a soft Indian accent. They are now Canadian.

A former colleague of mine also had an interesting story. Her grandfather was Pakistani, and had worked with the British in Shanghai training horses. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, he came to Hong Kong and married a Chinese girl who gave birth to my colleague’s father. He then married a Pakistani girl who became my colleague’s mother. My colleague spoke fluent Cantonese from her experience in a Chinese school, English, and also Pujabi, a language of India and Pakistan.

These obscured diasporas have been around since the time of the Silk Road, but as globalization and migration makes movement around the world easier for many people, the kinds of simple pairings of language to identity will become less accurate and certainly less useful.

Language and national identity

China and the United States offer a useful contrast in their approaches to language policy, especially when compared to Canada and European countries such as Denmark. Canada has two official languages: English and French. French is spoken by about 21% of the population. I often wonder if the long experience of having to put up with each other has helped temper some of the excesses that come from a singular, cultural, or linguistic national identity.

Interestingly, the United States does not have an official language, though the defacto official language is essentially English. But with such a large Hispanic population, of which 37 million aged 5 or over speak Spanish at home, Spanish is as American as English in many regions.

Denmark has been making the headlines again about being the happiest country, but Denmark is also careful to provide or subsidize quality preschool programs that a majority of Danes send their children to. This socialisation from an early age has the benefit of keeping everyone on the same page, so to speak. The combination of a social welfare policy with the end result being greater linguistic and cultural cohesion, is a marked different strategy from the US, even if people would like more English spoken there.

China, unlike the United States is more like a nation state, or more accurately, civilization state. It has hundreds of indigenous dialects and languages, but espouses a singular national Han identity with an emphasis on Putonghua, or “common tongue”. 90% of Chinese officially identify with the Han ethnic majority. As a result of the schooling system, the vast majority of these are fluent in Putonghua, but many, especially those in the south, may speak other regional dialects. Then there are large ethnic minorities, such as Tibetans or Uighurs, who speak languages from different linguistic families to the dialects common in China. Many speak fluent Putonghua and may be fully literate in Chinese, even if they do not physically appear to be Chinese. (I have been confused for a Uighur on more than one occasion.)

As the US continues to wrestle with the long term legacy of slavery, China must wrestle with more complex notions of Chinese identity. As I’ve asked my students, and as I ask myself when I think of my own half-Chinese kids, what makes someone Chinese? Is it language? Appearance? Culture? A hukou?

Taxi drivers will joke with me that my Chinese is more standard, and therefore, more Chinese than theirs. But there are increasing numbers of foreigners who are astonishingly fluent in Chinese, to the point where their accent would be indistinguishable if they were speaking behind a screen. There are also more mixed and even foreign children born and raised in China whose first language is Chinese. Many of these ‘mixed blood’ kids, as they’re called in China, are legally Chinese. But if I were to compare these mixed children, or my black Ghanaian friends’ children to the children of second and third generation Chinese immigrants to Canada, the gut instinct for a majority of people is that a monolingual, Canadian-born ethnically Chinese is more Chinese.

So what is the moral of the story. Well, I think it’s this. Whatever you is, language can’t primarily make you, you. There are too many exceptions and arbitrary definitions. The neat lines dividing countries and places have become increasingly porous and irrelevant. A language is just a language, however beautifully or imperfectly presents its speaker.

If you and I both happen to speak the same one, great. It likely means we can understand each other better.

And yes, some languages do have higher status, confer greater benefits and provide access to better opportunities. But with English at least, this is no longer automatically true.

So are you your language? No. You are you. Now go out and be.

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