Reading A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo was a lesson in emphasis and empathy. Being the child of immigrant parents I thought I knew what it meant to navigate the complexities of a new language – to suppress your mother tongue, and replace it with a foster one.
But the thing is I never had to experience that; I never had to know the struggle of translating something in my head before verbalising it, and, once I finally get it out, to find out that I was wrong. I never had to know the humiliation of having all authority stripped from me, of having to re-earn my respect word by word simply because others failed to realize that while the pronunciation of “respect” differed, its definition was the same all over the globe.
Language has become power. This is nothing new, of course. English was very much a weapon of colonialism during Imperialism. Much of the native tongue of the colonized people was suppressed, and those who spoke it were ostracized to the point that anything associated with it was seen as shameful.
Even now, within the diaspora community here, it is often a point of pride if you can throw in English words here and there in your conversation to appear more “learned” and intelligent. Those who speak in their first languages are seen as being embarrassing, as backwater bumpkins who are unable to adapt. The necessity of learning English to survive has transformed into a desire to hide our mother tongues. The bullying kids face at school, and the odd looks aimed by adults in public places are all corrosive.
Knowledge should be shared and cultivated, and language, as a branch of knowledge should definitely be about that. As a form of communication it is a give and take, an exchange. But with English’s pervasive power, instead of being a commonly used currency, it is sometimes treated as the only currency.
Yesterday, an article in the paper reported how an English backpacker had been set upon by a group of angry young men simply because the Englishman had deigned to communicate to a French friend in French. “Speak English”, he was told. The arrogance of these men is mind-boggling – their temerity has no bounds. Their audacious actions speak loudly for their complete belief in the superiority of their language. Their confidence in being able to exert their power and authorize the supposed superiority of their language is not only repulsive, but harmful. New Zealand is frequently lauded for its friendliness, and renowned for its multi-cultural cities. And yet, even this idyll is infested with this racist mode of thinking.
The sound of a foreign language is heard as a threat, registered as an act of defiance. To dare to brave this thorny hatred requires a strength and endurance I can’t imagine. To speak your language in a place immersed in thoughts of its own superiority, to struggle with that country’s language, these are daily acts of bravery happening all over the world. The courage of all these immigrants (not ex-pats, for ex-pats by their very term are accorded a privilege that immigrants are not) who try to make a life for themselves despite being shunned as outsiders is truly admirable.
There’s a quote that goes along the lines of “If someone struggles with the English language, it means they’re already fluent in another language”, and I’ve seen it around a lot lately. It seems that such close-minded individuals as those boys can’t pause to consider the wider world around them.
They don’t want to think about how far-reaching the human experience is, nor do they have the capacity to realize that it’s through communication, through exchange of knowledge that we can build on that experience. They don’t want to admit that there are channels of information and knowledge that they haven’t tapped into; they would rather that all the world only view itself through one lens.