On Bilingualism

This article was written as part of a pitch I submitted to Varsity to apply as a columnist for the Features section. It was later published, in translation, by the UK Chinese Times on 24th February 2017.

On my phone, I have four messaging apps. Three of them aren’t surprising at all, ones you’d find on pretty much anyone’s phone or tablet – Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype – but there’s one that you might not have heard of: WeChat. Open that app, and you’ll see a flurry of Chinese characters, strange features and unfamiliar emojis. WeChat, although little heard of in the West, is actually one of the largest messaging platforms in the world, with over 600 million users in China alone. And so, when it came time to set up a family group chat, my family eschewed the usual Facebook and WhatsApp options, and instead went with WeChat.

It’s a byproduct – one of many – of growing up in a household of immigrants. My parents came over from China as postgrad students in the late 1980s and decided they wanted to stick around. Despite living outside of their home country, though, they never gave up their ties to their Chinese roots. And so, when it came to raising kids, they, like many immigrant families, taught their children their native language as well as English.

It would be nice to think, then, that my brother and I both grew up to be fully bilingual, having mastered both English and Chinese and being able to use both effortlessly. The reality, unfortunately, turns out to be slightly different. Despite my parents’ best efforts – speaking exclusively in Chinese at home, correcting me whenever I used an English replacement, getting me to take extracurricular Chinese classes on Sundays – my Chinese is, at best, at the level of a slightly above-average primary schooler.

And that’s actually pretty good compared to a lot of other British-born Chinese kids. Some of my friends who went to the same Chinese school on Sundays gave up after GCSE or AS-level. I’ve even met people with my same linguistic background who, despite understanding Chinese, refuse to speak any language other than English, even when spoken to in Chinese.

In a lot of ways, this outcome isn’t particularly surprising. When you’re a kid, the prospect of doing any amount of schoolwork is off-putting, and being asked to do extra work on a Sunday unlikely to go very well, especially for a language that you’ve not really been given any reason to care about beyond the fact that you use it to speak to your parents. It doesn’t help that you’re simultaneously trying to come to terms with your own identity as a second-generation immigrant, trying to assimilate and wary that your second language might open you up to mockery. Despite all the encouragements from my parents and teachers that learning Chinese would “look good on your CV!” or “help you to get in touch with your roots!”, I was always a reluctant student, and when I finally finished my A2 Chinese exams, I was relieved.

My Chinese is now in a strange limbo, where I’ve managed to cobble together enough of the language to get through everyday conversations, but as soon as I try to broach more complex topics, I falter. Whenever I talk to native Chinese speakers, they say they’re impressed by the quality of my Chinese; if I try to talk them about, say, politics, however, I get flustered, embarrassed, have to ask my parents for the right Chinese words for this and that.

You might have heard of the term code-switching, the linguistic term used to refer to rapid switching between two languages, or varieties of language. Well, code-switching has been a part of my everyday family life for longer than I can remember. While I always speak to my parents in Chinese, whenever I talk to my brother, I almost always use English. Whenever we have family Skype calls, it’s always obvious who my brother is addressing depending on what language he’s using. And even when I speak to my parents, I’m always pausing to ask if I got the syntax of that sentence right, or if I’m using the right word to convey that concept. In fact, if you have a look of our WeChat archives, you’ll see my brother and I frequently swap out Chinese words for their English equivalents when we’re not sure what the right translation would be.

I’ve lived like this for years, but it was only recently that I started feeling a tinge of regret that I didn’t keep trying to improve my Chinese when I had the chance. I was 16 when I stopped taking those Sunday classes, and at the time my mind was preoccupied with so many other things, but I’ve grown up a little since then, gotten closer to my parents, gotten interested in Chinese film and literature, and I’ve started thinking that maybe learning Chinese wasn’t so bad after all. Sure, all those Sunday afternoons going through dull language exercises were a pain, but didn’t I gain something from them too?

A second language is a skill that many people dream of having – indeed, lots of people come to Cambridge with that goal in mind – and the more I think about it, the more grateful I am that I’m able to speak at least a decent amount of Chinese. It’s given me the ability to better understand my family, and the culture and community I’ve grown up in. I’m not sure what the future holds for my Chinese, whether it’ll improve or deteriorate, but either way it’s something I’m very glad to have.

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