Bilingual Assumptions

Last week, I sent my dissertation committee the first draft of a chapter of my baby (aka my dissertation). Milestone passed! Well, actually, they have to approve it first, and then I’ll pass the milestone. And there’s no guarantee that they’ll approve it. I mean, they didn’t the last time I sent them something. So… maybe milestone not passed. Yet. Well. Anyway.

I’ve spent the past few months preoccupied with ideas surrounding bilingualism, not least because my dissertation has something vaguely to do with the topic. I do research with bilingual Korean Americans, and for the past few years, I’ve run a lot of studies that request participation from Korean Americans who are at least basically fluent in Korean and English. But one thing that I have always known is that not all Korean Americans know how to speak Korean.

I’ve always known this, because it stems from an easy analogy with my own identity as a second generation Taiwanese American, and the second generation Taiwanese and Chinese American peers I had growing up. Lots of us cannot speak Mandarin, or only know very basic phrases. Among second gen Taiwanese American kids, even fewer know any Taiwanese or Hakka (two “semi-official” languages that are commonly spoken, in particular by older people, in the island nation).

My parents spoke to my brothers and me in Taiwanese when we were growing up, and I’ve retained partial fluency in it. As for Mandarin, the only reason I know any at all is that I went to Chinese school on Saturdays as a kid, and I studied it again in college. Still, my Mandarin is pretty rudimentary. I can carry on conversations with my parents’ friends, or my a-yis and shu-shus at their church, but that’s about it. (My comprehension skills are so low that I could not understand the Chinese robot calling scam that targeted cell phone users with Chinese last names, which is a good thing: I just hung up on them!)

In general, it is not safe to assume that a second generation Asian American will necessarily speak or even understand the language that their parents spoke in their country of origin, even if their parents spoke that language to them as a child. People’s language skills change over the course of their lifetimes, obviously. I was much more fluent in Taiwanese when I was a young child, partially because I didn’t have to express myself in very complex terms, and partially because I was not yet socialized into an English-dominant world. Although the United States does not have an official language (on the federal level), English is certainly the common language, and this is enforced by public pressure (especially strong pressure, I must add, when it is exerted along racial lines, as well). So I think it’s safe to assume that an Asian American will speak English. Which makes me wonder: how come everyone else is so interested in “the other language”?

Case in point: one morning at the shelter where I volunteer, a fellow volunteer attempted to engage me in small talk. It was her first shift ever, and I had just shown her the ropes on where to find various kitchen supplies and how to set up the breakfast line. Then I stationed myself at the stove to make pancakes and scrambled eggs. We had the following conversation:

Her: So you said you’re a grad student? What do you study?
Me: I study linguistics. Phonetics, specifically, the study of speech sounds.
Her: Oh, cool, what are you going to do with that?
Me: (inward sigh) My goal is to become a professor and teach linguistics at a university.
Her: Oh, right, I guess there isn’t, like, anything else you could do with that.
Me: (inward wtf) Well, no, actually there’s a lot of stuff you can do with a degree in linguistics. Like some of our graduates go into speech pathology, or you can do research, or work in tech.
Her: So… how many languages do you speak?
Me: (inward groan) Um, I–
Her: At least two, right? I assume you spoke a different one at home…
Me: …
Me: …
Me: …
Me: I speak five languages and sign one.

If you are at all aware of the tropes or common misconceptions that linguists face, you’ll understand why the first part of the conversation was cringeworthy. And if you’ve been paying attention as you read this post, you’ll understand why the second part made me want to stick my face into a bowl of pancake batter and scream.

But it was 7am, and I was not in the mood to deal with a white woman’s uninformed curiosity. I steered the conversation in another direction and waited until I got home to vent.

Like, sure, she was just trying to make small talk, and she was curious. But her curiosity was born of the same ignorance that paints Asians as perpetual foreigners in the United States. People ask white (American) linguists how many languages they speak, too. (Pro tip: don’t ask a linguist how many languages they speak. Linguist polyglot.) But nobody asks a white linguist what language they spoke at home with their parents. Because of their race, they are assumed to have spoken English, and by extension to have been in this country for a few generations. Because of my race, I am assumed to have arrived here recently. Because I am assumed to have arrived here recently, people whose curiosity-that-is-born-of-ignorance has been turned, for whatever reason, into xenophobia, decide that I do not belong here. Don’t think for a second that Asian Americans are safe from racist ideologies and their repercussions; it’s all rooted in the same assumption that people who look like me… don’t speak English.

And so went my little rant. But after I calmed down a bit, I thought a bit further and realized that as upset as I get about the casual stereotyping, I am by no means a perfect example of racial sensitivity. In fact, I stereotype other people all the time. It’s not just about meeting another Asian person and trying to figure out their ethnicity. (Be well aware: I made a conscious decision long ago never to ask anybody about their background or ethnicity unless they bring it up themselves in conversation. So when I do try to guess, I always keep it to myself.) But the truth is, I make assumptions about the languages that other ethnic minorities or people of color speak.

Case in point: one evening I was chatting with a person I had met online. He saw from my profile that I was a linguist and asked me the tired question of how many languages I speak. When I gave him my answer, he wrote, “Wow, that’s a lot, I only speak two.”

Right at that moment, I made an assumption. I based this off of his name, which was something like Juan or José, and his appearance, which was Latino. And I literally wrote, “I assume the other one is Spanish?”

“How dare you,” he wrote back. “It’s Norwegian.”

Before I could reply, he added, “jk yeah it’s Spanish.”

Although he was joking and didn’t appear to take any real offense, I was immediately humbled, and I apologized. I told him that I completely understood if he was turned off by the microaggression I had committed, because I myself was on the receiving end of assumptions like that all the time. And he said that it wasn’t such a big deal, but in the end, well, I’m still thinking about that exchange weeks later, so something clearly needs to be unpacked here.

It could be as simple as, “Everyone is guilty of making ignorant and potentially hurtful assumptions about other people based on their race”. But maybe… is it possible that the stakes are different between people of color? Or maybe just between people of Asian descent? Like, I try never to ask another Asian person about their background, but if I were asked about my background by another Asian person, should or could I take less offense?

This reminds me of another case in point: I once received a message from a self-identified Chinese American that read, “What’s your nationality?” I knew right away he wanted to figure out if I was Chinese or Taiwanese, but I decided to troll a bit and wrote back, “… American?”

I understandably did not think very highly of the exchange, or the person with which I was having it, but I was more amused than angered.

Then there was the panhandler on BART just last weekend, a older black man who had loudly announced to the entire train that he was fine with nobody giving him any money, but that he didn’t want to be completely ignored. I gave him five bucks and — being totally honest here — hoped that he would move on to the next car. Instead, he took the bill from me, and we had the following exchange:

Him: Thank you, sir. Now, do you mind, can I ask you your ethnicity?
Me: No.
Him: I speak eight languages. Are you Chinese?
Me: No.
Him: Korean?
Me: Do not ask me my ethnicity.
Him: Well, thank you anyway. [to the Indian lady behind me who had just handed him a dollar] Thank you. Are you Indian?
Her: Yes.
Him: Dhanyavaad.
Her: You’re welcome.

He was pleasant and smiling the entire time, but I was already in a bad mood that evening, and the train was crowded and loud, and so I was having none of it. Sometimes, I just want everyone in the world to be less curious about other people. Or about strangers. As much as it goes against my religious beliefs to say this, I did not want to have any connection to that man. I wanted to acknowledge his presence and help him buy some food, and nothing more. But he was seeking connection, and he wanted to do it linguistically. He probably thought it would be special or heartwarming if he could say thank you in “my language”. But I refused to play along. And I feel a mixture of justification and guilt for how that little scene played out.

The conclusion, I suppose, is that I don’t have any easy answer for when it is and is not appropriate to a person of color what languages they speak or what their ethnic background is. I can only really speak for myself and say that I prefer that nobody ask. I will bring it up with someone if I believe it to be relevant to the situation. Otherwise, I’d rather be seen as a person first and a representative of minority group X second.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m ashamed of my heritage or my heritage languages. In fact, I’m fiercely proud of them, and try my hardest to make sure my one-year-old nephew, as well as any children I have in the future, grow up hearing only Taiwanese and Mandarin from me, to stave off their eventual heritage language loss for as long as possible. But it’s different, I believe, to get to choose how and when to demonstrate my ethnic pride, compared to being forced to own it due to someone else’s mere curiosity.

The one thing I am curious about, however, is whether I am the only person who thinks this way, among my friends who have heritage languages. Feel free to chime in below, in the comments!


Word of the Day: Portunhol (or Portuñol, in Spanish) is the Portuguese name for a mixed language comprising Portuguese and Spanish. Portunhol is what comes out when a Portuguese speaker tries to speak Spanish but throws in Portuguese vocabulary and grammar, or vice versa! The two languages are so closely related that Portunhol is probably easily understood by speakers of both languages. My guess is that the rudimentary Spanish of a native Portuguese speaker might sound a bit like Scots, or even a thick Scottish accent does to native American English speakers. You can sort of make out what they’re saying, sometimes, and then all of a sudden you wonder if they’re speaking English at all! (Here’s another good one with Irish shepherds!)

Anyway, I’m trying to learn Portuguese right now, in preparation for a conference trip I’m taking to Lisbon in June. The first problem is that I’m using the app Duolingo to learn, and it’s teaching me Brazilian Portuguese, not Lusitanian (European) Portuguese. The second problem is that whenever I try to actually speak or type the very little I already know, I get it mixed up with my also-very-basic Spanish. So in a way, I’m also using Portunhol, but it’s not because I’m natively fluent in one or the other but because I suck at both. I can predict that my time in Portugal is going to be very awkward. I mean torpe. I mean desajeitado. Whatever!


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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1 Response to Bilingual Assumptions

  1. Stephanie Wu says:

    I might be unique among Asian Americans who think this, but I actually don’t mind at all when people ask me what language I speak at home or if they have other questions about my heritage. I think I can tell when they are being mean and derogatory or when they are actually curious. And I don’t mind the curiosity. I’m happy to help inform people. In my mind, I think if I tell them to piss off (in a nice or mean way), I’m not making them more informed.

    It’s natural for people to be curious and I often would rather them ask me directly than make quiet assumptions. Peoples’ beliefs are shaped and minds are changed through knowing others and through having conversations. I’m not saying that every conversation I have is productive, but I think I try to assume good intent most of the time.

    Interestingly, I rarely get white people asking me about my heritage. Most of the time it’s other non-asian minorities. And usually the people who throw the most derogatory comments my way are also other non-asian minorities. Go figure.


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