Voices on the New Diasporas - an MIT student journal

Submission deadline for Spring 2007 issue is Feb. 15, 2007.

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by Huawei (Katie) Dong

“Your daughter is one of the best students in the class!”

“Oh yes, he works very good.”

“Uh, alright Mom, let’s go get some water over there.”

Sex changes and misuses of “good” and “well” occur very often in Chinglish, the version of English that my parents speak. It can be observed most frequently in first generation Chinese immigrants who barely learned any English until the move to America. I have to admit that their Chinglish is definitely not as awful as the cacophonic and incomprehensible kind of the stereotypical Chinese restaurant owners or the Chinese tourists who visit to the academic shrine named MIT each week. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much effort to notice the distinctive heavy Chinese accent or the awful grammar and word choices in my parents’ speech.

Both of my parents have lived in America for nearly twenty years. I would have thought that nearly two decades immersed in an English-speaking environment should have provided them with enough time and experience to master the language. Yet it appears that their English capabilities have already reached a maximum, a maximum that is unfortunately not very high on the language proficiency scale. An extra twenty years will not change the way they speak. Their Chinglish is comprehensible enough to buy them eggs at the supermarket and get them through the workday. When my family is out to dinner, however, I am always the one to order for everyone. This efficient practice saves them from having to pronounce more difficult words like “Cajun” or “fillet mignon”.

Still, looking back, it wasn’t very long ago when I still depended on my parents for communicating with others. When I first moved to America, I watched them converse with store clerks and teachers smoothly in a language I barely knew, and I admired their fluency. They helped me with homework. I would point to a simple word like “forest” in my textbook; they would look over and reply “shu ling”. They even tried to speak to me in English as much as possible to quicken my learning process.

“Jin tian wan shang chi shen me?”


“Umm… What we eat, tonight?”

“Chicken and broccoli.”

“Umm… What is ‘broccoli’?”

“Look in dictionary!”

The dictionary became a close companion through my entire language-learning process. Through daily interactions with students and teachers, my English improved rapidly. After two strenuous years, I finally caught up with the American students in English and writing classes. It wasn’t long before my English skills far exceeded those of my parents. My previous positive impressions of their language abilities were all relative to my inabilities. I realized that their English was actually not very good at all.

As I moved into the end of middle school, they began coming to me for language help. Very often, they would scream a word down the hallway to ask for its meaning or spelling. I was much more accessible than the dictionary on the bookshelf all the way across the room. I began correcting their pronunciation and their grammar when they spoke as well. The admiration I had held for their fluency before completely disappeared and was replaced with frustration. Often times, they couldn’t recall something that I had just taught them only a week ago. I have explained how “chaos” means a huge mess and is pronounced “kay-ahs” at least five times in the past but I’m sure they wouldn’t know it if I tested them right now.

Aside from the annoyance I felt acting as a human dictionary; I was often times embarrassed to be associated with their poor Chinglish. When we attended school functions, I often purposely left them standing on the side while I talked intently to my friends. I avoided introducing them to my acquaintances as much as possible. Had a conversation unfortunately begun, I always interrupted, suddenly became extremely talkative, and tried to end the conversation as quickly as possible. When talking to my parents in front of others, I preferred to speak in Chinese. I felt that it was better to act foreign and speak a language no one else understood, than to speak English very poorly. They had lived in American for twice as long as I had, and they also interacted with native speakers on a daily basis. So why are their English skills so much worse than mine? When I asked them for some explanation, they always simply replied, “Oh, we’re too old. You young kids learn much faster. Our brains not flexible no more.”

One day in high school, I was browsing through Science News, a magazine containing a collection of interesting current events in scientific research. An article that day provided a possible solution to my question. The authors of this article had discovered that the section of the brain associated with language acquisition actually looked different for early and late second language learners. The regions brain associated with the native and the second languages in late bilinguals are distinctly separated, while those in early bilinguals tended to overlap.

I found this article extremely interesting because of the possible explanations it provided for my family’s circumstance. This overlap the article described perhaps allowed early bilinguals like me to think and reason using both of the two languages interchangeably. For us, the two both act as primary language sources. I reason in English but count in Chinese, and I dream in both languages. In late bilinguals like my parents, however, the second language was formed to the side of the native language region in the brain, acting more as an addendum. This certainly explained why it often takes my parents so long to respond to someone’s question or comment. They had to translate the words to Chinese in the addendum, think in Chinese in the native region, and then translate it back to English in the addendum. Errors were bound to occur in this long journey of words.

Reading this research article provided me with a physiological explanation for the large difference between my parents’ and my English skills despite similar learning environments. I grasped the language better not because I was smarter or possessed a more natural predilection towards languages. My parents were right after all. It was due to the difference between our ages and our brains. Such scientific understanding, however, did not change my attitude toward my parents’ Chinglish. Even though I constantly reminded myself of the research article and that it was not exactly their fault for speaking English so poorly, I still could not shake away that embarrassment. Through my rude attitudes and actions, my parents realized my feelings toward their poor English. They understood their language inadequacies.

Listening to the radio in the car, we often heard commercials for Verbal Advantage. Verbal Advantage claimed that listening to the CDs for only half an hour a day could dramatically improve your conversational and communication skills, teach you to speak like a Harvard graduate, and propel you to the top of your professional career. My father heard these fancy claims and bought a set for himself right away. He is a businessman and effective communication is essential for getting the most out of business deals and contracts. He tried to listen to the audio CDs on his drive to and from work each day. Unfortunately, he grew tired of that voice on the CD very soon and the three hundred dollar CD set fell to the bottom of the glove box. He excused this waste by saying that he is too old to absorb this much information.

I believe that very few people who actually purchased this CD set actually made it to the very end. And no matter how much improvement these CDs could actually provide, thousands and thousands of these audio programs probably flew off the shelves of Verbal Advantage's product storage compartment. What kind of powerful draw did they have on the population that allowed people to throw away three hundred dollars without even checking for online reviews?

I checked the Verbal Advantage website and found this interesting statement. “Every day, people judge you by the words you use. Rightly or wrongly, they make assumptions about your intelligence, your education and your capabilities. Not having a strong command of language can be a serious handicap, an obstacle that prevents you from achieving your goals. Don't let that kind of mistake hold you back from achieving your career goals and from all the other rewards and recognition you deserve.” What attracted buyers then was not just improvement in one's language and communication skills but rather, more importantly, improvement of other people's opinions of oneself based upon language proficiency.

Good language skills are certainly essential for effective communication but are they that necessary? Can the lack of it really handicap a person from achieving goals and getting ahead? Many Chinese restaurant owners speak terrible English but that had never prevented me from successfully ordering an orange chicken. I don’t believe that my parent’s Chinglish had ever hindered them from accomplishing anything either. Nevertheless, Ionna Dimitracopoulou states in her book Conversational competence and social development, “Language is an essentially social and active entity. It is a communicative activity in which intention, dialogue, group interaction and social context are significant for understanding.” Language ability probably won’t affect simple everyday situations such as purchasing food very much. In more complicated situations, however, it probably plays a more significant role. This explains why it was my dad and not my mom who bought Verbal Advantage. My dad is a businessman and language is an essential part of business negotiations. Only with adequate communication skills could one then effectively expressing one’s own intentions and desires and understand those of others. These CDs then not only promise proper usage of language but also success and of course, as a result, wealth as well.

Surely not everyone attracted by the fancy words of Verbal Advantage commercials deal with business negotiations as a career. So there must be some other factor involved with language, perhaps at the root of my embarrassment to be associated with my parents’ Chinglish. I feel embarrassed because other people may judge me negatively based not on my own actions but on those of my parents. So are people who speak poorly looked down upon in this culture? Geoffrey Finch believes that our choice of vocabulary and sentence structure very often represent difference in social status. In his book Word of Mouth, he provides an example of various words for drunk. If someone uses “pissed” or “smashed”, he is often associated with the young and uneducated and those of lower social class. Using fancy words such as “inebriated” or “intoxicated” creates an illusion of higher education, and social standing. Furthermore, he points out that proper grammar also indicates one’s level of education. Using double negatives and making other common mistakes, like my parents often do, also indicates a lack of formal language training and in turn a lack of education and class. Although both my parents have Master’s degrees in electrical engineering, their poor language skills would still very often stereotype them as people of less academic experience and those on a lower rung of the social ladder. As a result I, with my MIT education, certainly want as little association with this uneducated stereotype as possible.

As embarrassing and irritating as my parents’ Chinglish may be, I on rare occasions actually secretly take pleasure in their inadequate language skills. Sometimes, my father emails me his business proposals and asks me to edit them for him. His writing is convoluted, poorly structured, and simply painful to read. The editing, however, provides me with a sense of power over my parents. While my life depends almost completely on their support, it is on these rare occasions that they depend on me for help to make them appear more educated and professional. As terrible as it sounds, I often feel that I am better than my parents because I possess a better grasp of the English language. With better communication skills, I will go further and be more successful in my professional and personal life than they have. I will be one of those people that Verbal Advantage buyers like my dad hope to become. And I will have an upper-hand in the social ladder climb and the opportunity of reaching that coveted top rung someday, something that my parents and their Chinglish could never achieve.

Even though I have crossed the language and cultural barrier and now fit perfectly well in this American society, I still feel that in I could never escape some restrictions of the Chinese culture. I may be of a higher social status in the future than they are now, but in our family unit, I am forever their child and I must defer to them for many of the important decisions in my life. A major problem I foresee in the future is my choice of a husband. Because my parents are still not fully adjusted to the language nor the culture, I often feel pressured to find someone who is Chinese. As much as I disapprove my parents’ Chinglish and wish to change it, I don’t want them to ever feel uncomfortable with the presence of my boyfriend or husband at our own family gatherings. And it may be bearable to be judged negatively based on language skills by a stranger or mere acquaintance but it will completely disrespectful on my part to have another family member do the same.

“Who was the boy on phone? Boyfriend? Chinese?”

“No, he’s white. And no, he’s just a friend, Dad.”

“Oh… You need Chinese boyfriend. No white or others!”

“Yea, yea, good night, Dad.”

“Don’t yea me! You are Chinese, remember your home, Huawei!”

Home? I believe that’s “heritage” in Chinglish.

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