What is your native language? For many, it is an easy and straightforward question. Then there are those of us who find it filled with complicated loopholes. This question came up on two important occasions in my life. First, when I was looking for an English teaching job in Taiwan. Native-English speakers were more sought after than those who learned English as a second or foreign language. Second, when I was applying to graduate school. They wanted to assess if the applicantâ€™s English is good enough for him/her to succeed in the program.
What is my native language? I was born in China, and I am of the Han race. The first words I uttered were in Mandarin Chinese. The first words I learned to read and write were Chinese words. Chinese in every sense of the word, is my mother tongue. My mother spoke it and my ancestors spoke it. There is no doubt that I am a native-Chinese speaker.
But what are they really asking? If they are looking for an English teacher, they are looking for someone who has a high command of the English language. If it is an American graduate school I am applying to, they are asking if I need to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). They are asking for fluency. What they should be asking is, â€œWhich language are you most fluent in?â€
Thatâ€™s funny. Despite being a â€œnative Chinese-speaker,â€ I am certainly more fluent in English. I read English novels, write English essays, have conversations in English, and I think in English. At the time, I couldnâ€™t read a childrenâ€™s book in Chinese or write a letter or have an intelligent conversation with an adult.
Having immigrated to the United States at the age of six, I stopped using Chinese in the public sphere. My parents made sure that I continued to speak Chinese at home, but it is in the public that oneâ€™s language matures and takes shape. In school I learned to read, write, and analyze. Amongst friends I learned to banter, argue and gossip.
My Chinese at home remained at the level of a six year old. I could articulate what I wanted and needed. I could whine to my parents and express simple statements of my feelings. My Chinese was dwarfed, truncated, never adequate for expressing the complexities of my thoughts and emotions.
This by no means is a unique experience. It is a clichÃ© amongst immigrant experiences. Our native tongue is made of flesh, and it curves, taps and clicks however it is trained. It internalizes the tools that it is given and does not adhere to nation or race.
The term â€œnative-languageâ€ puts a claim on language. But language is a tool shared by its users and not owned by any. It serves its purpose as long as meaning is rendered. Sure, language retains culture and history, but these things are created, destroyed and recreated by their communities.
Do not take English away from me because it was not my first. Do not leave me without a means to speak, to write, to express myself wholly.
Letâ€™s lose the â€œnativeâ€ in â€œnative-speakerâ€ as we head towards an age without race or nation, where new cultures are created without the old-world boundaries of nationalism or ethnicity. Letâ€™s just speak and be heard in our mish-mash of Chinglish or Spanglish in this globalized mongrel world.
WORLD - AN EDGE IN MY VOICE
Copyright © 2010 Betty Zou
What Is Your Native Language?
Copyright © 2010 Betty Zou
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