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Sunday, December 17, 2017

What Is Your Native Language?

by Betty Zou (writer), Seattle, August 22, 2007

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 applicant’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, “Which language are you most fluent in?”

That’s funny. Despite being a “native Chinese-speaker,” 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 couldn’t read a children’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 one’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 cliché 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 “native-language” 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.

Let’s lose the “native” in “native-speaker” as we head towards an age without race or nation, where new cultures are created without the old-world boundaries of nationalism or ethnicity. Let’s just speak and be heard in our mish-mash of Chinglish or Spanglish in this globalized mongrel world.


About the Writer

Betty Zou is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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5 comments on What Is Your Native Language?

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By Steven Lane on August 22, 2007 at 08:02 pm
Nice article...I just returned from Ecuador where my girlfriend is an English teacher. She is Ecuadorian born and a graduate of college there (B.A.) and she told me that if I go there to teach I would make more monney than her....because I am native U.S. born. Doesn't really seem fair since I would know very little culturally.
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By Betty Zou on August 22, 2007 at 09:31 pm
It's the same in Taiwan. We are either considered ABC (American-born-Chinese) or Chinese who have gone abroad. ABCs made more money as English teachers. But they only need proof of an American passport.
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By Lyn on November 05, 2007 at 02:12 pm
I was reading your article and I identify myself with what you wrote on the level of your chinese. I, myself grew up in France and I am a FBC (French born Chinese). I think this is pretty hard to keep up such language if you constantly interact with another language on a daily basis for your studies, your work and socially. We have multi cultural to China because we have been living abroad a big part of our lives and what is left are the little traditions and mentalities that our ancestors want to keep.
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By Lyn on November 05, 2007 at 02:23 pm
sorry there are missing words in the last sentence: We have multi cultural backgrounds but at the same time, when we go to China, we are like foreigners because we have been living abroad a big part of our lives and what is left are the little traditions and mentalities that our ancestors wanted us to keep.
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By Credo on November 22, 2013 at 08:09 pm

It would have been great if you presented this article to the School interviewer when they sort your native tongue, it would have explained everything.

Well written, well argued post.

:)Credo

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