I had a fantastic class with my IDLS 395 students last Thursday, discussing language and diversity. We talked about how language shapes our thinking, situating in an environment where English is no longer the language that people speak and the associated emotions and reactions...etc. I am very proud of my students who demonstrated self awareness and discussed diversity issues in a mature manner. We also watched Asian you tube videos despite a lot of us didn't know the language at all- Korean, Mandarin and Thai! Although students did not have any clue about the language, they were able to capture some of the universal messages in the videos. Fascinating! Honey K told me that language only accounts for 25% of the human communication process according to research. We very much rely on other cues as we communicate with people, including nonverbal cues, gestures, pointing and facial expression. As an instructor of the class, my goal is not to only address differences in between people from different cultures, but also similarities. Social Psychology research tells us similarities increase liking, isn't it?
One thing that we didn't talk much about is the privilege associated with language, which I think is a rather important topic. However, class was so short, especially when you had a group of active participants. Going back to my point, a lot of time we are so taken for granted that people should understand me or this person should be able to speak better accent than that. Well, coming from a different country, speaking and writing in a different language, I find it always difficult to express myself in English. It is challenging as it requires more brain energy and time.
Growing up, I ALWAYS HOPE I CAN SPEAK REALLY FLUENT ENGLISH. People around me told me that if you cannot master English, it would be very hard to find a job. This is somehow true. In addition, there are always people out there who tease people who cannot pronounce certain words or think a person speak in an accent or write broken English with a lot of grammatical errors...etc. We have to acknowledge that there is privilege associated with fluent English speakers. We are privileged to be able to communicate with this language.
I have my own language barrier. My mother tongue is Cantonese but no one here in Harrisonburg really speaks this dialect. I am capable to speak in both English and Mandarin. However, there are times that people might not understand me because I don't know the vocabularies or that I speak with an accent. There are also moments that I feel so embarrassed as I have no idea what the person is talking about. Sometimes, I just cannot follow if the person uses slang or big words. However, I am also very fortunate. I have a cohort who are willing to teach me English through interactions. They allow my ignorance and they are willing to explain to me what's behind the words. You can never imagine how many English vocabularies I have learned from my cohort and through my interactions with students. For example, Kimberly explained to me what's the meaning of "cranky"? Adam and Mark corrected my pronunciation of "herbs/herbal", Vesna introduced "Quinoa" and Ashley always asked me if I understand something or not. She will just elaborate for me...etc. Of course, I think my students are just great that they never laugh at me when I mispronounce something.
As for Mandarin, I have been speaking the language since I met Honey K in New York 3 years ago. I still remember those times when we couldn't understand each other-we had to write on each other's hand to communicate. (We both write Chinese but speak different dialect). To be honest, at times, I feel frustrated because he can't understand me due to my poor mandarin or I can't understand his sentences. However, he always corrects my pronunciation and at the same time be very patient with my mistakes. Now he is learning some Cantonese as well and I laugh all the time whenever he speaks it. (Twelve dragons go to picnic is the Cantonese song that I love him singing to me).
How wonderful and fortunate that I have a group of people who can tolerate my language barriers! These seem to be small things and no big deal, perhaps you would think. Yet, these small things change the life of a Chinese young woman and her perception of the world. She knows now what is being cranky, how to pronounce herb and quinoa and not being afraid to ask questions when she doesn't understand. More, she learns to tell others not to be afraid to ask when they don't understand.
I speak with an accent but so does everyone else.