There’s that old joke: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? An American.” Personally, I feel ashamed and embarrassed that I don’t speak a foreign language. My parents were Chinese immigrants, but they spoke different dialects and therefore English became the lingua franca in our home. As a kid, I had to attend Chinese school on weekends, but of course hated doing so and, this being the assimilationist 1960’s, my folks let me quit. I took French, Latin, German, and Spanish in elementary, middle, and high school, but can’t do any better nowadays than maybe count to ten in each.
As a college student, I studied Mandarin for two years, and as an adult, have made periodic stabs at hiring Chinese tutors, but my Chinese still totally sucks. My relationship to Mandarin is similar to that of a frustrated smoker to his habit: every now and then, I make an attempt to overcome my deficiency, only to eventually give up and relapse — in my case, into monolingualism.
What about you? Do you have proficiency in a language or languages other than English? And if so, was it something you acquired as a child in the home, or through determination and hard work?
ROGER: Though I was born in the United States, my parents spoke to me exclusively in Mandarin for the first few years of my life. I imagine they would have spoken English to me during those years, but being recent immigrants themselves, they were far from fluent in the English language. So doing as all FOB’s do in the privacy of their own homes, my mom and dad spoke to each other and to their children in the language most familiar and comfortable to them – Mandarin Chinese.
And so there it sat, in my brain, a cache of Mandarin just uploaded into my brain. I don’t even remember how it got there. It just works. It’s strange and cool at the same time. Kind of like finding out you can pilot a 747 without having gone to flight school or being a proficient Krav Maga specialist without having any formal Israeli combat training. It’s as natural and automatic as breathing and walking.
My only issue about my language gift is that I can’t read/write very well and that the level of my vocabulary and speaking isn’t good enough to deliver an off-the-cuff speech about blood diamonds or erectile disfunction to the Chinese masses. I really want to change that though. It would be really cool to be as fluent in Mandarin as I am in English. Then I could become a secret agent and be known as 008…
PHILIP: My parents are Korean immigrants so there was a combination of Konglish when I was a child so I am able to speak Korean conversationally and can read and write on a rudimentary level. But I wish I had made more of a conscious effort to learn more. I wish I paid more attention when I went to Korean language school on Saturdays. I’m glad I know what I know but definitely could’ve been more proficient but like other immigrant kids, I definitely wanted to fit in and that meant being more “American” and I resisted learning Korean. I also took Spanish in high school and college so you can imagine how well I speak that.
DAVID: Besides English… Cantonese is my “at home” language with my parents and now I’m just not good at speaking it… I tried to practice with my wife, which she says it sounds like baby language… so I stopped trying. BUT… I like to say that “Pidgin” is my language of choice. I grew up speaking it and will always have the best “talk story” language when I’m with my friends from my home in Honolulu. It’s all shorthand… English: “Alright then, I’ll see you later”. Pidgin: “K-den”. Short and to the point and it speaks like code… Shaka brah!
ALFREDO: I can order a burrito in Spanish, but that’s about it. Well, that’s not exactly true: I speak German – and was once near fluent – but that’s rusted away. There’s just not much call for it in California. My father’s native tongue was Spanish, my mom’s German – but the emphasis at home, as in DHH’s case, was to “fit in.” After the divorce, I lived with my mom, so when it came time to pick a language to study in school, I picked German – why not, she spoke it. I remember my dad praising the decision, saying that German would be better for me “in the business world” than Spanish. Well, the business world passed me by, and I really, really wished I had learned Spanish instead. Nothing against German – my proficiency led to a grant to study for a year in the country gratis – but that was many moons ago, and here in California it would be nice to be able to talk about something besides burritos in Spanish.
IRIS: My parents came from Japan, so we spoke Jinglish at home. I also went to a Japanese after school program until about 6th grade. But my language skills were still pretty crappy until I spent a year in Japan after graduating college. I learned a lot then, although I was working in a lab full of guys, so I had to be corrected now and then for my impolite man-speak that I picked up. (A friend of mine had the opposite problem when he took Japanese lessons from an old lady and was often told that he spoke like an old lady when he went to Japan.) The different levels of politeness (keigo) was and still is the biggest stumper for me. Not only do men and women use different words, but there are also different ways of speaking based on ranking. For instance, you use different words when talking with your friends vs talking to business colleagues from your company and still different words when talking to a business associate from another company. The more polite you get, the more syllables you have to tack on. Now I’ve gotten pretty rusty in my Japanese and am sure whenever I try to use it that I’m offending someone by not using enough syllables.
EMMIE: In high school and college, I studied a couple years each of German & Japanese. Taiwanese was my first language, but I stopped speaking it regularly around 3. My older sister started attending school, and the teachers told her that her English sucked. Jenny came home and announced that she would no longer speak Taiwanese. My parents, worried about our assimilation, agreed that we should work on our English instead. It’s a shame – if I were fluent, I’d have understood all the crazy stories our relatives and family friends have told around the dinner table for the past billion years. That said, I’m glad I can at least converse at a 3 year-old level. I like going back to Taiwan and chatting in a different language (even if I talk about verrrry simple things).
I’d like to learn Spanish now, since there’s so much opportunity to practice it in LA.
BEVERLY: In the Philippines, one of the official languages is English and to speak English well is a sign of being high-class there. (I know, very colonial, I know.) When my parents came to the US, they didn’t want me to have an accent so they tried to speak English to me. Of course they talked to each other (and me too when they couldn’t recall the words in English) in both Visayan and Tagalog. And as a kid, you learned to understand both, since basically that’s what all the adults spoke and they’d talk about us kids behind our backs not realizing that we TOTALLY understood every word. So I can watch television in Tagalog and eavesdrop on every Visayan and Tagalog conversation and be yelled at in both languages and know why they’re yelling at me, BUT my ability to recall words and make sentences is very limited since I spoke back in English and being filipino, they UNDERSTOOD English!
When I went back to the Philippines, I’d try to speak my limited Tagalog and Visayan (when you know two languages, it’s difficult to discern between the two) but the Filipinos just wanted to practice their English cuz it hurt to hear me try.
I honestly speak and read French better since I learned that in school and worked hard at it, but if I had the opportunity to learn Visayan (Tagalog is the main dialect in the Philippines, but it’s not my parents’ true tongue) I would have taken it.