Navigating between languages

“I’m going out to the store to get groceries, is there anything you want me to help pick up while I’m there?” A simple enough sentence we all say and hear almost on a daily basis. Now, imagine this one sentence said in a combination of two languages: English and Chinese, or as some call it ‘Chinglish’.

Born and raised in Canada means I’m automatically enrolled in a school system in which its primary language is English. My first language is English. I learned a Chinese dialect, Cantonese, concurrently with English. It’s kind of hard speaking English at home to my grandmother, whose primary language is Cantonese. I immediately developed fluency in a blend of English and Chinese, ‘Chinglish’.

When I was young, my mom, like many stereotypical Asian parents, sent me to numerous camps and extracurricular lessons. One of those lessons was Chinese school, where they taught you how to write Chinese characters, teach you the history of the characters, taught you how to read and the correct pronunciation of those Chinese characters, and how they form into phrases. I was good at it: good enough to understand their deeper meanings. I was good enough to hear slight differences in tones: it’s crucial in Chinese because even if one tone is slightly off, it means you are saying a completely different word. Because I felt I was good at it, I ‘hung out’ in class rather than focus and study. Too smart for my own good, people would say, which really translates to plain stupidity.

When I was young, there was no pride or shame in speaking different languages. You just spoke. Communicated with your friends and teachers accordingly; it was practically innate. I remember being in school and using Chinese to communicate with friends who either rejected speaking English regularly or whose verbal English skills were not as strong. Honestly, I think ‘Chinglish’ helped those who struggled with the English language learn English because they began to understand certain words through context. Teachers didn’t think so, though. Some saw it as laziness; some saw it as discrimination against the school system and people who couldn’t understand Chinese.

For us, kids with varied backgrounds and constant exposure to different languages, it was different. We weren’t trying to be lazy or rude. We were trying to be social and communicate with one another.

Flick! You switch on English when someone speaks English to you. Flick! You switch to Cantonese when someone speaks Cantonese to you. Flick! You switch to Mandarin (or at least acknowledge you understand what they’re saying in Mandarin) when someone speaks Mandarin to you. Flick! You speak both English and Cantonese interchangeably to describe things you want to describe to those who speak both English and Cantonese. It was normal. It was helpful.

Normal until you’d get reprimanded for speaking a language that sounds like gibberish to someone overhearing a language they don’t speak. Definitely reprimanded by the teacher — that’s a given — because you were either lazy or speaking in coded language. You’re doing something wrong, simple as that. And you slowly learn those rules, as slow as you move from kindergarten to first grade and onwards.

We still spoke ‘Chinglish’, though. Spoke it all through elementary, especially with our peers who were in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. We even spoke ‘Chinglish’ in high school. At some point, I think ‘Chinglish’ did become a lazy way of communicating because the kids in ESL would get better at comprehending and communicating in English, but still refuse to do so. ‘Chinglish’ became too normal.

I don’t think my comprehension skills in English were slowed down and impaired like some of my elementary teachers may have thought, though.

I remember English being a pretty easy subject in high school. Overall, I managed well enough, despite being heavily discouraged by my tenth grade English teacher, and despite the attempts of sticking me in a ‘Communications’ class for my senior year merely because I seemed disinterested and unfocused in my junior year. I even remember trying my hand in poetry and showing my ninth grade teacher a snippet of it and asking him for his opinion. He was gracious about it because I’m pretty sure it was terribly written without any substance — I was 14 at the time. In spite of my troubles with my English classes, the subjects I was more skilled at — had more talent for — was liberal arts. Literature and History, particularly the history of China, have always fascinated me.

At some point, between my internalized-discouraged-low-self-esteemed high school teenager-self and my approaching-adult-college years, I had lost all knowledge of how to formulaically construct a proper sentence. Suddenly, I was unable to translate my thoughts into words on a page without accruing a grammatical error or two in a single sentence.

I stayed behind in my second-year college English class one day to chat with my instructor about the coursework and assignments. “Did you grow up learning and speaking another language?” my instructor asked me seemingly out of the blue. “Yeah, I speak Cantonese at home.” Just like that, that instructor of mine during my second year in college boiled my writing issues down to the languages I grew up speaking. He had said that kids who normally grow up speaking two or more languages often run into grammatical problems. I had nodded, unsure of how to respond, not even knowing whether what he said was, in fact, true. I left his classroom that evening believing him: he’s the teacher, he’s an authority figure, of course he’s right. I silently blamed my mother’s language for my inability to succeed. I was 19 at the time.

I probably carried around a significant amount of detest, annoyance, and even anger towards education for a few more years. It was utterly frustrating to lose something simple like writing, something I was good enough at once upon a time. For a long time, I really didn’t like English, even feared it. Such a shame: English literature stood as the one school subject encompassing liberal arts for me because the themes touches so many things we witness in history and in life. Reading was fun, and that has and would never change. But, the instruction of English literature, the requirements behind each course, and the grading of each assignment and participation were all incredibly exhausting to me. My fascination with liberal arts dwindled because the idea of never succeeding came down to bilingualism.

I had tried to get away from the subject. Tried my hand at a variety of different courses across different faculties. As fate would have it, or because I just stuck with what I knew, I continued to enroll in English literature classes anyway. I didn’t love it, but I stuck with it for a good amount of time. Around this time, I subconsciously made a point to stop using my mother tongue, Chinese, even in a mix with English.

In a way, relinquishing Chinese helped my studies in English literature.

In my last two years of college, I met a professor who truly turned English back around for me. I stayed behind class one evening to chat with her about the work we were studying in class and the assignment I had just gotten back. She must have been exasperated by my written work by this point because I had had her as a professor the previous term. “I am banning you from using conjunctions when starting a sentence,” she enunciated clearly and authoritatively with a smile and a chuckle at the end. I was taken aback initially. I mean, she had just unexpectedly given me some very serious and strong critique. “O.K.,” I said while nodding, feeling dazed and shocked as I caved to her orders. She’d always been extremely kind to me. I think that’s part of the reason why I caved so easily — a part of me knew she was doing this for my betterment.

I kept my ‘O.K’ for the rest of the semester. That is, until my final term paper for her class. The more I read, the more I paid attention to conjunctive words in writing — essays and stories, albeit stories frequently have fragmented sentences — the more it began to click. By the time I started researching and writing my final term paper, incidentally one of my last papers in my undergraduate career, I understood how to start a sentence with conjunctive words without making a grammatical error. Better believe me, though, when I say I was nervous and sweating out cold sweat while writing and after submitting the essay. There’s something fundamentally frightening, yet exhilarating, about going against the grain, rebelling against what you’ve been told.

And what would have you? My writing quickly improved from that one semester, my understanding of the written language also improved, my vocabulary grew immensely, and some self-esteem came back. Her critique was the best thing that has happened to me thus far.

My grades for a good chunk of years may have suffered but English is my language. I majored in it. It’s my expertise. Analyzing English literature is second nature to me. (I had someone say to me once that it’s near impossible to “read for fun” when you’ve spent so much energy and effort into constantly and consistently analyzing texts.) Writing a thousand words can be done within hours, easily. I went to school for it, and I have a piece of parchment worth about $25,000 to prove it.

The countless hours and effort I spent on learning and re-learning English was at the cost of my supposed mother tongue, Chinese, a multi-dialect language I was once fluent in and had spent time learning.

Although I didn’t lose all ability to communicate in Chinese, I did lose the ability to write majority of what I had learned. Over the course of my adolescence, I began rejecting my use of the Chinese language — even when at home — and it seemed to happen naturally. I often justified that I live in Canada, born in Canada, and my country’s official languages are English and French, therefore I should really only use English or French (not that I can speak French because the further west you go in Canada, the lesser French is used).

Nowadays, I find it somewhat difficult to switch between the two languages. It feels as though there’s a switch in the language part of my brain: if I’ve been speaking or reading English the whole day, I produce an accent and have a lot of difficulty speaking in Chinese, and vice versa.

Even though it’s hard, and even though I speak Chinese with an English accent sometimes, it doesn’t mean I’m predestined to lose my trilingual skills. I don’t believe in destiny, at least I don’t think I do. My being born Canadian does not predetermine that I’ll renounce my mother, grandmother, great grandmother’s heritage. My ignorant and youthful stubbornness, perhaps, does.

I’m lucky, though. My grandmother lived and took care of me until the day she passed — I was 13 years old. There were many, many heroic, ghostly terrifying, funny, and ridiculous stories she told me in her native language. I used to respond to her in my mother tongue. I’m still lucky because there are many, many stories my aunts, my uncle, and my mom still tell me today in their native language.

Also, it’s fun, being able to understand different languages, because you can surprise others when they think you don’t understand what they’re saying.

And now, I try my best to respond and engage in my mother tongue. I’m lucky because I still have time to embrace my Chinese heritage, without thinking I need to forgo my ‘Canadianism’. I spoke and read English purposely more than the others before, now I choose to try my best and speak and read Chinese as well as English.

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