It may be weird, but I don’t even know Chinese words for “please” or “good-bye” . Yet I dutifully check off Chinese, as my mother tongue on Canada’s census form. Am I delusional about my own Chinese fluency? Does that mean I come from a rude, brusque family?
Meh. Maybe. Each family has their own patois of linguistic shortcuts, sprinkled with facial and body language signals.
Keeping Family Together: Butchered Mother Language
I speak a near-kitchen Chinese. My speaking fluency has almost been reduced to words and phrases about food –with some butchered Chinese basic phrases for everyday living: shopping, sleeping, going to the washroom, etc. My siblings and I must speak our crazy lingo with our mother and some relatives. It was less of an issue with my father when he was alive, since he was fully bilingual in Chinese and English.
Equal, Competent Multilingualism Only for the Gifted?
I’ve always wondered other people who claim to be multilingual. In Canada, it’s possible to be equally fluent speaking, reading and writing in 3 languages: kudos to some Canadians in Quebec, who immigrated to Canada and not only are fluent in their mother tongue, but learned French to function well, plus know English on the side, if they want to be more competitive job-wise across Canada.
Forays in French
For me, I only know a smattering of French. It’s from several years of mandatory, weekly 1 hr. lessons in Canadian schools, then 1 university course I had to repeat twice in 2 years. After such repetition, some French words did stick to help me read some signs, tickets and menus when I travelled in Quebec and France. Heck, several years ago, I even miraculously passed the basic French reading exam when I applied for a federal Canadian government job.
In contrast, while I was vacationing in Czech Republic and Greece, I felt truly lost. I couldn’t even figure out the language script. My 3 years of high school Latin were useless.
Third, Fourth Language Competencies: Like Distant Cousins
Most bilingual people I know, are equally fluent in speaking, reading and writing in 2 languages. But for them, tacking on a 3rd, especially 4th language or more, may mean uneven competencies in reading vs. participating deeply in lengthy conversations. Some gifted people can absorb multiple languages and have fantastic memory. I’ve just known a lot of people who have relinquished mastering the 3rd language at the same level as their other 2 languages. They just lacked time, opportunity or motivation to use the 3rd language frequently.
Linguisitic Competence: Help Me Please
Unfortunately I do not meet true hallmarks of linguistic competence for Chinese and French. To me, speaking fluency means to clearly ask questions and understand without grossly misinterpreting for safety of others and yourself:
- converse and help someone in medical emergency, medical/health distress
- determine and help someone who needs first line legal assistance. Simple legal problems –tenant problem, driving ticket, identity fraud.
- go to bank, vendor to resolve a financial transaction problem, purchase.
It’s having fluency to ask the right questions to determine a problem, understand another person’s responses and make useful referral to experts. Ok, maybe I might understand the gist — 5 words out of 20 words.
Childhood Years: Living on Margins of English Language Mainstream
It wasn’t always like this. I didn’t learn English until kindergarten. Even though I was born and raised in southern Ontario, my life was very sheltered. I had no clue I didn’t know any English until that fateful first day of school. Until grade 3, I lived on the margins of school life because I had to take additional English as a Second Language lessons . For my teachers, it meant special attention to phonetics, enunciation and literally taken out of class for half an hr. for extra tutoring.
I also read lots of library books which did accelerate my English learning. Now, I’ve moved so far from dreaming only in Chinese as a kid, to dreaming primarily in English. That’s another test of language comfort: what language do you dream in, word sounds do you mutter in your sleep?
When Jack and I play Chinese-German word games, I’m reminded how much my Chinese language has rotted away. We choose simple English words. He inevitably knows a lot more German word translations while I do not know the Chinese equivalents.
My Face Does Not Reflect My Real Linguistic Competencies
Still, I hang onto my shattered Chinese, like a broken mirror that only holds chunks of glass patterns. I can’t throw away that broken mirror. That mirror seems to hang on a string around my neck forever. I just have to remember to use it carefully, no matter jagged my fractured sentences may be. That mirror reflects possibly, a puzzling Canadian identity to others. But there are many people like myself: my face does not match at all the languages that I can or cannot speak.
When I do utter certain Chinese phrases, however broken, they just pop out of me naturally with no thought. I cannot read nor write Chinese. So I do not envision Chinese words in my head. So speaking a language is like primal oral sound from the brain. Like a sunbeam suddenly flickering across the broken glass pieces in one sudden pattern.