Opinion | Columns

Second languages, second chances

As an East Asian languages and cultures major, I have no idea how the Core’s foreign language requirement affects the average Columbian. With five-point, four-day-a-week language classes, EALAC sees the “satisfactory completion of the second term of an intermediate language sequence” simply as the lead-in to a third or fourth year of study. The idea of not taking a foreign language is foreign to me. Language acquisition is not my forte. In fact, learning a language has always been my Achilles’ heel, the source of pre-college academic shame and no small amount of cultural dissonance to go with it.

After all, the domain of native English speakers who are acceptably monolingual is fairly limited, and it belongs to the U.K., or to America, Canada, southern bits of the Commonwealth, etc. The idea of an international student sans a corresponding international language seems incongruent—and perhaps rightly so. Without even leaving the country, many Americans are second- or third-generation speakers of a non-English mother tongue. They may never have gone to school for it, but they have a grasp of conversation and culture that comes from being born into a linguistically diverse household. What excuse, then, does a third-generation Chinese-Singaporean who was gently coerced by government education into taking 11—11!—years of Mandarin have for being monolingual?

The frequent objection I hear from friends about my self-proclaimed status as linguistically challenged is that I am bilingual but simply not confident about the fact. This is untrue: Any self-respecting speaker of Mandarin cringes whenever I so much as open my mouth. It’s not just my pronunciation. I have the vocabulary of a not-very-well-read five-year-old. For all the good that immersion in Chinese schools and a Chinese-majority population did me, it didn’t give me a language I could think in, which I see as a reasonable minimum requirement for something to be your “mother tongue.”

Mandarin isn’t my mother tongue. My mother doesn’t speak it. Neither does my father. They both grew up speaking dialects of Chinese, each distinct enough for speakers to be mutually incomprehensible to each other. But it is my parents’ generation, not my own, that I would headline as international: “SECOND-GENERATION MIGRANT CHILDREN BORN INTO MULTI-ETHNIC BRITISH COLONY, LEARN AT LEAST THREE LANGUAGES.” At some point in their lives they each picked up Cantonese, Teochew, English, and Malay. The memory of their geographies and cultures is imprinted on their linguistic palate. They never had to study abroad or migrate to pick up something new.

It is a funny side effect of globalization that my linguistically endowed parents arbitrarily chose English as their household language and then raised me as bicultural but not bilingual. It’s not that I don’t identify with my Chinese heritage. Though I declare myself “Singaporean” and not “Chinese,” I will not and cannot deny the “Chinese-ness” I inherited. The sons and daughters of the diaspora understand this intrinsically. Hypenated-Americans (Asian-, African-, what have you) hyphenate themselves for deep reasons that aren’t always easy to break down. We keep our mother cultures. Most of the time, we keep our mother tongues.

But generations of the diaspora change over time, especially in the kind of world we live in today: one where you’re only ever a plane ride away from a potentially massive and long-term displacement from your cultural home base. I feel like I was disinherited from my parents’ mother languages, and I can’t wrap myself around the idea of having grown up fluent in them. That trilingual person would not be who I am today. My mother tongue is English, and for all the cultural guilt I feel for saying that, it is true.

In Japanese—the language I’ve adopted for my stay in the States—the word for mother tongue is bo-go, the two pictographs reading literally “mother” and “language.” It was Hideo Levy, the first non-Japanese author to achieve fame in Japan for writing in Japanese, who, in a recent speech given at Columbia, enlightened me to the word bo-koku-go—“mother-country-language.” The two are different.

Your mother tongue, bogo, is the thing that sits closest to your heart, however incongruous it may be with your skin color or background. It is in that liberal mood that the Core’s language requirement freed me. It allowed me to shed the residual guilt I had for not knowing Mandarin, and it gave me the opportunity to learn the language I wanted instead of the language I ought to know.
On the other hand, the language of your mother country, bokokugo, is the language prescribed to you as the one you ought to know—the language of where you once came from. That place of origin may be very far away from you now. Does it matter? Perhaps that gap, far less than being a show of shame, is simply a show of how far you’ve come.

Po Linn Chia is a Columbia College junior majoring in East Asian languages and cultures. She is involved in CIRCA and the Global Recruitment Committee. Ever the Twain runs alternate Tuesdays.


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Allan Ngo posted on

Hi Ms Po,

This is indeed a very intriguing article. I was under the impression that Singaporeans are very fluent in Mandarin Chinese since the country is composed mostly of people with Chinese descent. It is a good point that you raised about us being the sons and daughters of the diaspora. I myself am a Filipino-Chinese and have often struggled with this language conflict between what I know and what I am supposed to know. 

I believe it is okay to know another language as your mother language regardless of your appearance, skin color etc but do believe that I must also learn the language of my ancestors in order to fully learn who I am. 

Great article. I hope we could keep in touch via email.