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Bilingualism and Identity

There is a reason why the language we inherit at birth is called our mother tongue. It is our mother, forgiving, embracing, naming the world and all its emotions. Though I have lived for the last forty years in cities where English or French is the language of the majority, it’s Bangla that exercises motherly restraint over my provisional, immigrant identity.

—Bharati Mukherjee (2004: 11)

INTRODUCTION

The above excerpt comes from Wendy Lesser’s (2004) book, The genius of language, in which 15 bilingual writers reflect on their mother tongues. The writers, all of whom are outstanding authors of various works in English, began their lives speaking languages other than English. Although the mother tongues of the 15 essayists are diverse—covering a wide range of languages from Czech to Gikuyu, from Polish to Bangla—one gets the sense that all of the writers have an intimate relationship with the first languages they learned as babies, whether or not they still speak them as adults. Indeed, as Li (2007) aptly points out in her analysis of identities of bilingual writers, “looking for home” is a perpetual theme in the works of bilingual writers, who are “souls in exile,” endeavoring to reconcile languages and identities through writing. The intensely personal accounts in The genius of language illustrate the power of mother tongues over individual identities, which are shaped and re-shaped as the writers are exposed to other languages and cultures.

Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and one of the essayists in Lesser’s book, reflects on her mother tongue, Chinese, and questions the common view that Chinese people are circumspect and do not know how to be direct in their speech. She opens her essay with a scene at a San Francisco restaurant where her mother offers the last scallop from a Happy Family seafood dish to her brother’s wife [Sau-sau]:

Sau-sau scowled. “B’yao, zhen b’yao!” (I don’t want it, really I don’t!) she cried, patting her plump stomach.

“Take it! Take it!” scolded my mother in Chinese.

“Full, I’m already full,” Sau-sau protested weakly, eyeing the beloved scallop.

“Ai!” exclaimed my mother, completely exasperated. “Nobody else wants it. If you don’t take it, it will only rot!”

At this point, Sau-sau sighed, acting as if she were doing my mother a big favor by taking the wretched scrap off her hands.

My mother turned to her brother, a high-ranking communist official who was visiting her in California for the first time: “In America a Chinese person could starve to death. If you say you don’t want it, they won’t ask you again forever.”

(2004: 25)

Tan states that much is lost in translation of this interaction into English. True, Tan admits that Chinese people are culturally socialized to refuse things offered to them to show modesty, but she is troubled by one-dimensional, blanket statements such as, “Chinese people are so discreet and modest... In Chinese, there aren’t even words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’... If one is Chinese, one compromises, one doesn’t hazard a loss of face by an overemphatic response.” She finds it problematic that people think of the Chinese as fundamentally unable to assert themselves, saying no when they mean yes and yes when they mean no. She writes:

Yet if I consider my upbringing more carefully, I find there was nothing discreet about the Chinese language I grew up with. My parents made everything abundantly clear. Nothing wishy-washy in their demands, no compromises accepted: “Of course you will become a famous neurosurgeon,” they told me. “And yes, a concert pianist on the side.”

(2004: 30)

To Tan, human behavior is complex and influenced by social contexts and hidden intentions of individuals. Cultural stereotypes, like the statements about Chinese people that Tan finds problematic, fail to capture the varied lived experiences of individuals and their unique positions in the world. People’s identities are not defined by any given category such as race, ethnicity, nationality, or gender, but are contested and negotiated through social interaction. For example, a natural response of someone who is discriminated on account of his/her ethnicity is to disassociate him/herself from the language associated with that ethnicity by temporarily suppressing it or denying knowledge of it. Since there are usually heavy costs associated with being identified as minorities, some people may even try to put some distance between themselves and others of similar backgrounds. Terms like “FOB” (fresh-off-the-boat) and “mojados” (wetbacks) are used by immigrants to describe recently arrived members of their own groups (Jeon, 2010). By distancing themselves from the more recent arrivals, the earlier immigrants negotiate a new identity, one that is not so stigmatized in the society.

In this chapter, I will examine the relationship between bilingualism and identity. According to Norton (1997: 410), identity refers to the ways in which “people understand their relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how people understand their possibilities for the future.” Identity is dynamic, multifaceted, and negotiated through language (Cummins, 2000; Lam, 2004a; Leung, Harris, & Rampton, 1997; Nicholas, 2009; Nieto & Bode, 2011; Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2004; Rajadurai, 2010; Schecter & Bayley, 1997). I will show how identities are reflected in the way bilinguals use their languages and how people construct new identities through language. We will see that language and identity have been theorized differently in various disciplines such as sociology, cultural anthropology, psychology, and education. By drawing from different research traditions and making comparisons between methodologies where appropriate, I hope to introduce the reader to diverse ways of thinking about language and identity.

Also in this chapter, I will discuss language and identity in the classroom. Language teaching and learning are sociocultural phenomena, and constitute important sites for negotiating various identities (Kramsch, 1993). Because of the power differential in the languages involved in any bilingual situation (see Chapter 3), the language classroom is a place where questions of power, inequality, resistance, and struggle are very salient. When children who speak a minority language enter school, they are often labeled as being deficient in the language of school (e.g., “limited English proficient”). They are identified for what they cannot do rather than what they can, which leads to feelings of disempowerment and academic failure (Cummins, 2000). For teachers then, understanding the social context of education is as important as mastering the content material and pedagogical techniques. I will discuss how language and identity are constructed in the classroom and show ways in which educators can empower students through a better understanding of classroom power dynamics.

I first turn to a discussion of language and ethnic identity in multilingual societies.

 
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