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It is Better if You Speak the Language: Raciolinguistics and Identity

An Interview with Dr. Amelia Tseng

“It’s better if you speak the language.” One version of a sentiment I have heard throughout my life. Like many children of immigrants, children born mixed-race, and even foreign-born children, I grew up feeling that my inability to speak my immigrant parent’s native language was a personal failure. It wasn’t until I took a linguistics course called Raciolinguistic Perspectives that I realized why my inability to speak my heritage language affects my identity and sense of self so deeply. I met with the instructor of this course, Dr. Amelia Tseng, to understand the interplay between language, race/ethnicity, and identity. Dr. Tseng is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a linguist, a researcher, a professor at American University, a mother, and someone who I admire greatly.

Aileen Pradhan (AP): Race, language, identity, and how people interact with those elements of your being are all closely tied. How is it that language is so linked to identity?

Amelia Tseng (AT): Language and identity are really connected. They're really connected symbolically as well as in a real practical way. In order for you to fully participate in a community, if you can't speak the language, it's hard. If you can have the language, I think it's helpful. It helps you participate in a different way, and it also gives you a certain legitimacy. Because if you don't speak the language, people don't accept you in the same way. And that's something I also consulted with family about because my racial identity is very marked. And so I've never been questioned on that, but some of my family members who are of mixed backgrounds experience that differently; the way that they're perceived or whether they have legitimacy in American culture or in Chinese culture is a bit different.

AP: Where does the notion come from that if you don't speak the language of your Asian parent you're somehow lesser?

AT: I think that in immigration we become more protective of our communities because they're more vulnerable and they have to put more work into maintaining them. Now, there are some people who just totally reject it. They want to go 100% assimilation or whatnot. This can fluctuate over time too. It depends a lot on personal experiences and that kind of stuff. I mean, language is such a powerful part of identity still that there's a feeling that if you don't speak it, you're somehow not a fully legitimate member. You also practically sometimes cannot fully participate. It's a bit unfair because it puts a lot of pressure on the younger generations to be responsible for things that they can't help, that they can't control. It puts a lot of pressure on them to be fluent in two languages when they may not have had equal opportunity to become fluent in them. In fact, even if they go to a community school on Saturdays with their heritage language, they're almost certainly getting a lot more exposure to English around kids their age.

AP: What other challenges might a heritage speaker face, which lead them away from their heritage language?

AT: There's a lot of pressure from society. They see their parents being discriminated against. They get picked on. Their parents want to protect them and a lot of time want to make sure that their English is perfect and that they're not going to experience problems. Fundamentally, they're not in their home country. I think it's important to recognize it because this assimilation pressure can be a form of violence. I mean, it is pressuring people to take away language and heritage and make them something else. I don't think that that's right. It's not a relationship that somebody should be able to take away from you just because you migrate and you go to another country. It can be quite tough because, at the same time, they're typically getting a similar discourse from mainstream America asking, ‘Where are you really from’ and ‘what are you’, ‘do you speak English’, that kind of stuff. So it's kind of like a double pressure and a no-win situation in some ways.

AP: What kind of support is needed to encourage rather than discourage heritage speakers?

AT: We need to be very wary about putting unfair expectations on the younger generations and thinking that they'll be exactly like we were when we were kids because they're not having the same experience. They're not having the same experience and we put more expectations on them than we do on, say, foreign language students. As a heritage speaker, even if you do speak your home language, typically there's always some way people can find that you don't speak it well enough. And the more pressure that's put on them sometimes, you know, the less likely they are to want to be part of the culture. Nitpicking when you do try to speak the language or, you know, accusing you of being Americanized when you don't know how to do something correctly culturally often drives people away from it because they feel like they can never do anything right. And I think an important lesson there for parents and communities is that children are delicate and they're not growing up the way you did in your country. And so you have to give them more grace and be more understanding in your feedback because they're trying.

AP: It seems there are a lot of themes around perfectionism and purity of identity and preserving culture. I'm curious to know, how can we kind of try to move away from that for an individual who wants to be in touch with their culture or their heritage language, but not be so perfectionistic about it?

AT: I feel like it's important to remember that language and culture are alive, you know? And that can help us because one way that people often look at it is the younger generation has lost the language or the younger generation has lost their culture. A more accurate way to think of it a lot of times might be that their language and culture look different than their parents did. So a lot of times, many second-generation children do speak the heritage language on some level. They just don't speak it the way their parents or their cousins do in their home country. And they don't speak it necessarily in the same context, right? So they might be able to understand more than they can speak, for example. Or they might be able to speak but lack confidence. Or they might be able to speak but only do it like at home and things like that. Or they only use it with their grandmother and maybe with their cousins, they use both languages and code-switch, right? But because our images of language and culture tend to be a bit static and tend to be based on a native speaker in that country, I think by expanding our understanding of what language and culture are to include the experiences of a much more diverse and mobile world, then we can, by opening up that definition, have room for all of these other things that are still part of culture and language, as opposed to looking at them and saying, oh, this is what you can't do. We can say, well, this is what you are doing and you're doing something different with it.


Editors: Joyce P., Claudia S., Leila W.


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