To learn or not to learn

Taking back the mother tongue

by justin ko

What’s a word?

Besides a vaguely symbolic splotch of ink on a blank page, a word is a motley assortment of letters, symbols, pictographs, or sounds that the brain associates with some sort of meaning.

As such, words of any language are merely components of a much greater concept; the concept of language itself, which everyone seems to have a say
on. Philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, for one, view language as a natural and inevitable extension of the speech which humans have within themselves.

As university students, we make the decision whether to include the study of foreign languages as a part of our education. More often than not, however, linguistic classes are set aside in favor of science and business courses. But there are those who do feel that languages are worthy of study here at Cal.

Renee Bell, a freshman, hails from Sacramento, but her mother was born in South Korea. Though her father is not of Asian descent, and she admits to being “definitely not fluent in Korean,” Bell maintains that learning to speak better Korean is an integral part of understanding her identity. “It’s a part of my heritage. The language really appeals to me, I like a lot about it [such as] the sounds, the written language has its own history, and it’s a cultural artifact in itself. Of course all languages are useful for a certain reason, but for me, Korean is a lot more personal. It’s more than being useful… I have a
certain obligation.” To fulfill this obligation, she is taking Korean 1A. Her proficiency in the language, like that of many local-born Asian Americans, is largely limited and often not enough to “engender a full conversation.” But what stands out in students like Bell is a desire to improve the status quo. “It’s definitely something I wish to change,” she says, “especially with the respect you have with your elders, you should definitely make the effort to
communicate with them effectively.” It would be a gross understatement to say that language is useful. Devoid of language, it would be simply impossible for us subsist as anything beyond a self-preserving sequence of chemical reactions. Language enables us to draw meaning from symbols and sounds as well as understand the concepts that define our very lives. Survival is ultimately achieved through communication; both communication with others, for biological and psychological sustenance,
and the inner communication alluded to by Hobbes and Locke.

Reflective dialogue within the self, to some degree, defends against the absurdity and irrationality of existence. More importantly, it allows others to understand and interpret our actions and thoughts long after we cease to live in the traditional sense. Language to me is a way we can feel a tangible
connection to shadowy ancestors older than the Greeks, older than the Bible. By “ancestors” I mean not only individuals directly related to my family, but rather, people that simply used my mother tongue. In a
similar way, language enables me to feel connected to future generations. As such, I believe that language is something that will persist through all generations and offer a thread to weave them together.

Butian Li is an international first-year student at Cal from Dalian, China. Attending English classes is mandatory in Chinese schools, and she says that the majority of high school graduates from China continue to sharpen their English ability. The comparison here is that Li is naturally fluent in Mandarin whilst attempting to improve her English, while local-born Asian Americans
like Bell are fluent in English but are trying to relearn their native languages.
Li says, “English is just a useful tool because I have to attend school here, and I have to learn English, even if I was in China. You can never know if it will be useful in the future. But I think in the very beginning you may learn a language as a matter of identification. I think language plays both roles.”
She also notes that appearance is a key factor in the assumptions people make regarding language proficiency or lack thereof. “I think there’s a difference between me learning English and those people who look [like they should be fluent in] Chinese but are actually not. For me, it’s fine, because I think people still regard me as a foreigner, but for them, people have the assumption that [because they look Chinese], they should speak Chinese fluently.” The linguistic stereotypes and expectations based on race mentioned by Li create a double standard that Asian-Americans of
all backgrounds must face on a daily basis. Our endeavours to connect with the past are all limited by the constraints of our knowledge. I, for example, cannot trace my origins much further beyond the fact that my great-grandparents on both my father and mother’s side were born in the
Guangdong province of China. But what little I do know about my predecessors—that they communicated using the Cantonese language (indeed, it’s different enough from Mandarin to be considered a separate
language)—is enough for me to feel a connection with them. In other words, I need no more than a language to feel a link to past and present Cantonese speakers and to sufficiently trace my background.

Like many local-born or otherwise “Westernized” Asian Americans, my fluency in my native tongue of Cantonese waned significantly by the time I started elementary school. It seemed to me a natural progress, for the television shows I watched, the toys I wanted, the books I read were all written in this West Germanic descendant known as English. And indeed I would argue that it is natural for a person born in the United States to lose not only proficiency in an immigrant native language, but also an appreciation for what it means to be a member of that immigrant community. As Asian Americans, somewhere down the line we all came fresh off a boat, a steamer or a canoe or a junk, and to deny this fact is to deny that at one point in time a particular ancestor of ours made a momentous journey that may well have terminated or initiated our bloodline with it.

It is exceedingly paradoxical how we wish to live memorable lives that hopefully mean something to our posterity, while the memories of our own forerunners have been largely discarded. If communicating in their language is the best we can do to keep these memories alive, then we need to make it a priority to relearn that language. Members of the South Asian community are by no means excluded from this inner conflict. Prateek Thatikunta, another Cal freshman, was born and raised in San Jose. His family speaks Telugu, the primary language spoken by the people of Andhra Pradesh, one of the most prominent states in India. The fact that Telugu is the fourteenth most spoken language in the world, while only the third most
spoken language in India, is a testament to the sheer amount of linguistic diversity in India and Asia as a whole. Thatikunta says that his ability to speak Telugu is sufficient to carry a conversation, since he has spoken it since he was born, but it “could definitely be better,” and it “gets worse and worse each year.” This is a difficult trend to reverse for him, since, as he says, “the only time I speak Telugu is at home, and since I’m not at home anymore, I definitely am going to be losing contact with it.”

However, he is satisfied with the fact that he is fairly fluent and can communicate with his parents and relatives. “I’ll never lose enough contact with Telugu that I can’t speak it if I need to. I can always speak enough.” Thatikunta is lucky in that he has largely escaped the language decay that befalls many second generation Asian-Americans; however, Telugu is nowhere near as accessible in terms of education on the Cal campus as
is Korean or Chinese.

As such he faces obstacles of different types in the common endeavour to retain native language ability.

I would argue that this is an advantage to being Asian American—we can identify with predecessors in our not-too-distant past, and with a collective culture that is becoming increasingly relevant in the present age to people of all ethnicities.

Whether or not we as Asian Americans choose to identify with this community is a decision that I believe is as significant as the decision to immigrate in the first place. I recognize the irony behind this statement, given that it was written in what I hope to be persuasive and well-written English. But it is not from the Germanic and Latin roots of the English language that I draw the significance of these musings, but rather, from the
broader understanding of the need to probe one’s roots—an understanding
that can be expressed in every language known to man, including Cantonese. English to me represents a universal language, a vessel into which I can
pour my thoughts. However, the dialect of Cantonese represents a vessel from which I can drink and be satiated by the thoughts of my ancestors. It is simply a matter of paying respect where I believe respect is due. But what’s in a word, anyway?