It’s a common experience for most Asian Americans: people assuming that we can’t speak English. This misjudgment confronts us on the street—yelled angrily at us and muttered under people’s breath. It can be unwittingly revealed at social events by people who compliment us on “how good our English is!” It even surfaced in the midst of this year’s gubernatorial race, when a Rob McKenna staffer tweeted, “Shut up and speak English #Asians.”
Asian Americans who only speak English find this particularly ironic. For me, as a fluent English speaker who majored in English lit and is probably more familiar with Spenser, Coleridge and Dickinson than your average racist on the street, this stereotype is particularly laughable.
I didn’t start learning Mandarin until college, where I studied abroad in Shanghai, so I’ve experienced both sides of the fence: an Asian American who communicates in English only, and someone who can speak both English and the language of my family’s heritage.
For me, I wanted to be able to communicate with my relatives and better understand where I came from. Mandarin curriculum wasn’t an option in high school, and my parents pulled us out of Chinese school when I was little—the fact that we hated it and was an hour’s drive away helped them along in that decision. So in college I dove in and double majored in Chinese, and never regretted it. The experiences and people I was able to meet through learning my heritage’s native language have helped shape who I am today.
But I can understand the perspective of other APIs, who feel that learning Vietnamese, Japanese or any of the hundreds of dialects from their home countries isn’t something that they want or need to do.
The reasons for this “loss of language” are wrapped up in a number of psychological and sociological issues that APIs grapple with. For some third or fourth generation Japanese in the Northwest, the Japanese language was lost, because speaking it in public, or even at home, was discouraged due to anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II. For others, second language learning tends to become de-prioritized by those who are taking on a rigorous academic schedule.
“Given the heavy academic load that many Asian American students are facing, it is easy to de-prioritize learning their native languages especially when they feel that they already use it at home and that there are no advanced level language classes available until college,” says Rebecca Deng, media director for TD Wang Advertising Group.
T.D. Wang, a local advertising agency that specializes in culturally relevant advertising and marketing campaigns, makes the point that bilingualism is “almost a requirement to succeed” in that industry. In fact, 100 percent of their employees are bilingual. However, when second language acquisition is most important, during childhood and adolescence, children often don’t understand the value that being bilingual can bring to their future profession, so it’s left to the parents to enforce.
“When I was younger I never understood the need to speak Vietnamese, because my mom understood English and spoke English to me no matter how broken or accented it was,” says Tuyen Than, a Vietnamese American student at UW. “I felt more of a need to fit in rather than be different. As I got older, the language gap between my family and me grew larger and larger. When I finally saw my dad and his family (my parents are separated), I could barely communicate with him.”
Some immigrant parents are fearful that if their children don’t speak English well, they won’t succeed, or they’ll experience racism. Or, they may believe that only certain languages, such as Mandarin or Japanese, rather than a lesser-known dialect, will be useful in the workplace. Some parents merely don’t have the time or resources to enforce native language learning in the home, and their own English is fluent enough, so that communicating in English is just easier.
As the mother of a three year old, I’ve found that raising bilingual kids is actually harder when the parents’ English is native or fluent, because the temptation to speak English is just far too great. For parents who only speak their native tongue, they can expect that English language acquisition will come to a child through attending public schools, television, movies and books. But the farther removed a parent is from one’s native culture, the harder it is to maintain social interactions “in-language” that demonstrate to the child that Asian language learning is more than just a chore or homework, but simply a natural way that people communicate.
If that’s the case, second and third generations of APIs may slowly find their language fluency slipping away, unless there are more concerted efforts to boost native language learning among parents and youth.
Uninformed, prejudiced notions such as those demonstrated by the McKenna staffer will likely always be a presence in the lives of APIs. However taking pride in one’s own culture and identity, no matter what language it’s in, is often the best revenge.

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