I thought that the concept of language identity connection would be interesting to explore through the eyes of a monolingual living within a multilingual home. My interviewee, T, is a first generation Australian with Chinese parents who immigrated from Malaysia.

English is the primary language spoken in T’s home, however his parents will occasionally use other languages or dialects to convey certain expressions. The following list shows a breakdown of the languages spoken in T’s home, with the proficiency levels of each in brackets:

  1. T = English (full)
  2. T’s mother = English (full); Malay (medium); Hokkien (medium); Cantonese (low)
  3. T’s father = English (full); Malay (medium); Cantonese (medium)
  4. T’s brother = English (full)

One of the main takeaways of this interview was the extremely positive attitude that he expressed towards multilingualism and linguistic diversity. When asked on his thoughts about others in the home speaking a language he does not know or a language that is not commonly known to others, T responded:

“I can imagine that it would be something that you could be proud of, something that sets you apart.”

This perspective seems to stem from T’s desire, but current inability, to speak his family’s native tongue as a way to connect with his heritage. T expressed how he, at times, felt “jealous” of those who could speak a language that is connected to their ethnic heritage, as he believes it can enhance your relationship with not only your culture, but also your family. Accordingly, T stated that his monolingualism or “the not knowing of Chinese” is a significant aspect of his identity. This monolingual identity becomes particularly salient for T in certain situations, for instance, when he observes his friends’ ability to converse with their families in their mother tongues or when he returns to Malaysia to extended family who prefer to converse in Cantonese.

“As little as I think about, it over the past, I guess four or five years, it’s really become like a significant part of my identity is the not knowing of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese, but also the fact that I want to learn it – those kind of make up a significant part of my identity because I then shift from an Australian to an Australian Born Chinese to an Australian Chinese who’s trying to rediscover or reclaim his heritage.”

Exemplifying the post-structuralist idea of identity theory, T explained how he is in the process of not only learning Cantonese but, in a way, “reclaiming” his ethnic heritage through language. This post-structuralist idea views identity as “socially organized, reorganized, constructed, co-constructed, and continually reconstructed through language and discourse” (Kouhpaeenejad and Gholaminejad, 2014: 200). In summary, through this perspective, identity is seen as something that can continually shifts in accordance with our different linguistic interactions.

T’s identity is currently dominated by his Australian-ness stemming from factors including growing up in Australia, consuming predominantly Western media, and speaking only English. I believe T is building upon or ‘constructing’ his identity by setting out to learn Chinese. He is actively trying to, from his perspective, ‘enhance’ his identity and create a greater connection with his home and cultural heritage by broadening his linguistic abilities.

Another impetus for T learning Chinese is the alienating effects of not knowing the language amongst extended family who prefer to converse in it within their homes in Malaysia. During the interview, T described how colloquialisms and idioms were often how Chinese and Malay were brought into the home by his parents. Interestingly, T stated that these languages when spoken were never used maliciously or with ill intention. I thought it was strange that he specified this, and upon querying this, he described how Cantonese was the preferred language of his extended family back in Malaysia, and that it was even occasionally used to speak about another family member whose grasp of the language was lower. In this sense, broadening his language skills also prevents T from feeling isolated from his family and culture.

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Figure 1: books displaying English – the main language seen, spoken and heard in T’s home

Returning to T’s home in Australia, T explained that English was definitely the main language he saw and heard around his home, and I could observe this for instance in print media such as books, newspapers, and catalogues as shown in Figure 1. Accordingly, T described English as being “huge in [his] identity,” and that there is an association of his monolingualism – specifically, his ability to speak only English – with his “Australian-ness”.

“When I think of myself, who I am, I always think of myself as an Australian first and foremost … I’m a Chinese Australian who was born in Australia who can’t speak any language other than English.”

Although the predominance of English was very clear from my observations, I was also able to see visual representations of the other languages that are spoken in T’s home, Chinese and Malay. Interestingly, while T explained hearing occasional expressions used by his parents or television shows featuring these languages, he did not mention or perhaps even notice the presence of Chinese and Malay in visual forms. I believe an explanation for this lies in the two main forms of visual representations other than English in T’s home, which do not really require a deep engagement with the languages.

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Figure 2: Calligraphic artworks displaying Chinese

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Figure 3: Gregorian Calendar (with elements of Lunar Calendar e.g. markings on the date for full moon; equivalent dates in the Lunar year) displaying Chinese and English

Firstly, I observed several instances of Chinese characters in artworks or decorative pieces, including ornamental tags, calligraphic panels and a calendar as shown in Figures 2 and 3. While T’s parents can speak, with medium proficiency, the Cantonese and Hokkien dialects of Chinese, they cannot read or write it (written Chinese is known to be notoriously difficult!). Nonetheless, I think artworks and decorations allow a really interesting, arguably “passive” engagement with Chinese in that T and his family can show appreciation of and celebrate their linguistic background in a way other than speaking/listening or reading/writing.

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Figure 4: Instant coffee packaging displaying Malay, English and Chinese 

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Figure 5: Jelly powder packaging displaying Malay and Japanese 

The second instance where I observed quite a few visual representations of languages other than English, and interestingly, often combinations of multiple languages, was on food packaging. I think the linguistic diversity that I observed on the food packaging of a predominantly English-speaking home suggests how food is one of the most common ways that migrants, in particular, connect with their culture.

References

Kouhpaeenejad, Mohammad Hossein and Razieh Gholaminejad. “Identity and Language Learning from Post-structuralist Perspective.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research 5, No. 1 (2014): 199-204.

Karina Wong

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