A couple of months ago, I mentioned in my blog post about Chinglish that learning (Mandarin) Chinese was difficult for me even though I grew up speaking Chinese. In response, some people questioned whether codemixing is actually a sign of language competence instead of a language deficit. How could I be ‘highly competent’ in a language I was struggling so hard to learn?
When I started college, I would have agreed with them. But through my experiences at Yale, I’ve learned a lot about heritage language learners, people who grew up speaking but never formally studying a language that is usually spoken by their parents. I realized that what I understood to be a weakness was really a strength all along.
My Heritage Chinese
As a kid, my parents spoke Chinese to me at home. We attended a Chinese church every Sunday, and I participated in Chinese Weekend School after services. Before I started elementary school, my Chinese was better than my English. In fact, when my family went to Taiwan every other year, I was able to blend in. Other kids could barely tell I was different–that is until everyone learned to read Chinese, and I didn’t.
In the US, Chinese was a chore. I spoke it with my parents, but I never had the occasion to use it with my friends. The only other person at my elementary school who understood Chinese was my sister. As I got older, I became increasingly frustrated with Chinese. I would go to Chinese school and return home with extra homework, pages of half-completed worksheets, and characters to learn, but it never stuck. I didn’t see the point in learning a language I thought I would never use.
Giving up on Chinese
This feels completely ludicrous now that I’m a linguistics student researching Chinese. But when I was a 10-year-old in Arkansas, it was hard to see how this language that so few people around me spoke would ever be relevant to my future if I didn’t live in Asia. As a result, I neglected my Chinese. I still spoke to my parents in Chinese (when they forced me to). But as time went on, we started speaking more and more Chinglish. I quit going to Chinese school on Sunday afternoons and promptly forgot all but the most basic Chinese characters.
I still attended the Chinese church, and my listening comprehension was good enough to comprehend sermons in Chinese. Compared to others who grew up in similar situations, my Chinese was actually decent. I didn’t really have an American accent, and I could order boba pretty convincingly in Taiwan.
But I still couldn’t read. Since I only spoke with my parents, I only knew how to say things I would talk about at home (mostly food). As my English vocabulary grew, my Chinese vocabulary stayed stagnant. I avoided speaking Chinese to people outside my family because it felt stilted and awkward. Language is intricately tied to culture/identity. When I spoke ‘bad’ Chinese I felt like I was failing at being Asian. It didn’t help that some of my non-Chinese friends could actually read more Chinese than me and acted as if their 2-year high school Chinese learning experience somehow made them an expert in all things China.
Learning Chinese at Yale
When I got to Yale, I had to pick a foreign language to study. All students are required to study a language other than English–even if they already speak one or took AP classes in high school. I chose Chinese because I wanted to be closer to my family in Taiwan.
But I came into the process with lots of trepidation. There’s a real difference between the Taiwanese and Chinese accents, and I’ve always felt subconscious speaking around people from Mainland China. The majority of Yale Chinese classes are taught by teachers from the Mainland, and you have to speak only Chinese in all of the classes.
The learning process was awkward and hard for many reasons. My professor wanted me to change my accent during class so I would learn ‘the correct’ (read: the Bejing way) of pronouncing things. I never expressed my thoughts on politics in Chinese. I naturally think in English, so while I could understand everything my teacher asked me, I had trouble forming sentences in Chinese that accurately reflected my thoughts. Additionally, learning to read and write characters is uniquely challenging for me due to my aphantasia. I spent more time studying than other people in my class, but it never showed on quizzes or tests.
Through the process of formally studying Chinese, my language skills have undeniably improved. In my first week in class, writing a 50-word “essay” in Chinese was next to impossible. At the end of Spring 2020, I regularly composed 600+ word essays for class.
I feel so lucky to have had such amazing professors who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I’m so grateful for the many hours my Chinese prof sat with me to edit my essays or talk about life in Chinese. I know that I wouldn’t have continued my studies if she hadn’t been so invested in me.
Extending grace to myself
Looking back, I know I was too hard on myself. Since I had spoken Chinese my entire life, I expected my Chinese to be on par with my English despite the fact that I never put forth the work to help my Chinese stay on track with my growing understanding of the world.
I’m really proud of all the Chinese I’ve learned at Yale/IUP, but more than learning and memorizing characters, the most important thing that I’ve gained through taking Chinese classes is an understanding of myself as a legit speaker of Chinese.
Before Yale, I thought of myself as ‘a person who should speak Chinese but kinda can’t’. I subconsciously had this misconception that ‘real’ speakers of Chinese didn’t mess up when they spoke.
But this simply isn’t true, and I didn’t even have to look beyond myself for an example. I mess up while speaking English all the time. I start sentences I never finish, misuse/mispronounce words, and regularly come across words I don’t know. But I never see those mistakes as a sign that I have inferior English speaking abilities. I know that language isn’t perfect.
Competence vs performance
In linguistics, there’s a differentiation between linguistic competence (what you know about a language) and linguistic performance (what you actually say). Sometimes I misread something or it comes out in the wrong order, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know how the language works, it just means that I’m human.
As a heritage speaker of Chinese, I’ve tacitly absorbed a lot about the language. I know how words are pronounced, and I have intuitions about how the grammar words. These are advantages that no amount of studying could afford me.
After these realizations, I’ve learned to love my Chinese for what it is and accept that I will always be learning (just as I am with English). To this day, I still have weird vocabulary gaps in my language. Through my studies, I’ve memorized vocab words about philosophy and economics that I don’t even know in English. But for some reason, I still don’t know how to say “lung” in Chinese.
My relationship with Chinese may never be the same as my relationship with English, but that won’t stop me from trying to improve every day. I started Chinese class because I wanted to “fix” my broken Chinese, but now, I keep taking it because it helps me understand myself and others more complexly.
One day, it’ll get there, and until then, I have flashcards to review.