Multilingualism and Me

by Alice Min, Speaking Fellow ’17

Last December I managed to hop from Chile—where I was studying abroad—to Barnard to Columbus, Ohio to Shanghai, China to Singapore, and return to Columbus before the end of 2015. It was amazing, overwhelming, and rather surprisingly gave me insight into my understanding of language. I’m a Chinese-American majoring in Spanish; therefore, I’m relatively competent in three languages: English, Chinese, and Spanish. Would I say I’m trilingual? Eh, I can’t really read or write Chinese, and my Spanish speaking skills are at a point where I still mess up but know how to correct myself. English is the only language I feel truly comfortable saying I’m fluent in. I found out during my travels that my differing levels of knowledge and the context of my learning experiences greatly influenced the person I was when I interacted in Spanish, Chinese, or English.

There have been many linguistic theories and experiments studying the relationship between changes in the perception of personality and multilingualism. American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that every language perpetuates a worldview that affects how its users perceive and experience the world. Sociolinguist Susan Ervin-Tripp designed an experiment where she interviewed Japanese women living in San Francisco. She asked the women to complete sentences such as, “when my wishes conflict with my family….” When the women answered in English they said, “I do want I want.” When they replied in Japanese: “it is a time of great unhappiness.”[1] The study demonstrates Whorf’s ideas. American English, with its directness and lack of formal speech, lets people express their demands for freedom. Japanese, with its many forms of honorifics, asks the speaker to consider the consequences of personal freedom at the cost of elders. But which comes first? Grammar and syntax or cultural norms? Was it always a part of the American cultural experience to rebel against family wishes and our language simply melded to fit our needs, or was it the other way around? Perhaps, even more importantly, does language actually shape who we are? Does that mean out personalities are not constant? I can’t really speak to the historical or linguistic reasons behind this phenomenon, but I can speak to my own experience.

During the first month of my homestay in Chile, my host mom asked if my whole family was quiet like me. I was rather surprised by this question. I am NOT a quiet person. I am a SPEAKING fellow. I spent my childhood in timeout because I talked way too much. My mom still has a stack of teachers’ notes to prove it. But that was in English and Chinese. In Spanish, I was always more hesitant. I have to think before I speak. Do the genders match? Was that the right tense? Does no creo que need the subjunctive? In the few seconds I needed to form sentences in my mind, I would wonder, “wait, is this even worth saying?” Thereby self-censoring whatever I had planned on saying. So, of course I came off as quiet in Spanish. I was also more appeasing in Spanish. I would often say “” automatically, not because I agreed but out of a desire to come off as friendly in case I messed up elsewhere. I was also less likely to jump in as a dissenter in my classes because I was afraid I couldn’t articulate my viewpoints and just come off as dumb. All of these factors, from the context to my level of fluency, made me come off as a more reserved human being.

For me, Chinese is the language of food, scolding, and innocence. Racism, sexism, inequality do not exist because I don’t know the words for them in Chinese. While visiting my relatives in China, I was shocked by how many of my relatives looked down upon migrants from the rural areas of China. I chimed in and tried to explain that we shouldn’t be making generalizations about people and that we should check our privilege because we benefit from cheap migrant labor. However, I couldn’t find the words. How do you say generalization or privilege in Chinese? Strangely, I could figure out how to say it in Spanish. But wasn’t my Chinese supposed to be more fluent? I can get by in China without anyone thinking I’m a foreigner. But I couldn’t express my more complicated thoughts. When I finally chimed in to state rather gracelessly that we just should not judge people if we don’t know them, my grandma tapped my arm and whispered, “Children should mind adults.” I felt pretty indignant: “I am 20 years old!” However, it was true. I came off as rude because I don’t know how to use qualifiers in Chinese. My Chinese vocabulary and syntax have remained stuck at the level of a kindergartener, so I sound like one. I felt like my 20-year-old mind was stuck in a kid’s body.

When I finally got back to Barnard and spent most of my days babbling away in English, I thought I would feel relieved to be back home. Finally, the USA, where I would be in on all the cultural jokes, call out all the idiots, and be the loud, proud, and annoying person I always was. Except, there was still something scratching at me in the back of my head. Sometimes I wanted to describe that certain sort of pretentiousness where people are aware of their snobbiness but are actually proud of it instead of ashamed. There’s a word for it in Chile: cuico. But I can’t use that word without sounding like that one kid who went abroad and came back all “cultured.” Or maybe I want to compliment a particularly open-minded person by saying, “you know I appreciated that you can think it open,” which comes from the Chinese phrase xiangdekai (想得開). In English, that just sounds weird. I’ve always had the lost in translation feelings with English and Chinese, but I had my family to joke about that with. We pretty much speak Chinglish at home. But whom can I speak SpanChinglish to? Maybe the point of this blog post is a call to arms for all the SpanChinglish speakers in the world! Hello, talk to me about and in these languages!

In the end, I’m not quite sure what defined my experiences. Was it the language I used? The context? My level of fluency? The cop-out answer: all of the above. My own theoretical-not-based-on-any-science answer: I don’t think I am a different person when I speak a different language. I’m not quieter in Spanish—stereotypically speaking, shouldn’t I be louder? —I’m not more childish in Chinese, and I’m not a master of eloquence in English. I’m pretty much all the same, but I just sound different, and I have a different pool of vocabulary and syntax to draw from. As a result, others perceive my words and actions differently, and I react accordingly. Am I arguing on the side of nature over nurture? Maybe, but I would argue that our nature molds to the nurture society gives us. Languages just happen to be one form of nurture.

[1] Taken from Alice Robb’s article “Multilinguals have Multiple Personalities” in the New Republic, April 23rd, 2014.