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Let’s talk languages

I speak Franglais?

I like it that I grew up in a multi-lingual environment, and that I have opportunity to live abroad and experience new languages in the process. At present, I use either English or French in my daily conversations and they are slowly mergin to take life on its own. Slightly alarmingly for me is to find a plateau in my grasp of French and at the same time a regression in my use of English…

Lately, I find myself saying things like “his father” and “her mother” despite referring to the parents of a same friend (who is not both male and female at the same time, I assure you), asking a colleague if she has “taken her tickets” for a conference trip, and I “make (someone) a present” even if it’s store-bought and directly gift-wrapped (lovingly chosen, of course).

In another word, I’m beginning to literally translate from French to English (“son père”, “sa mère”, “prendre les billets”, “faire un cadeau”), and therefore committing the very same errors that I used to correct my Francophone friends from making! I know this is not strictly Franglais in the traditional sense – I don’t often speak in either one language then pepper it with words from the other – but what else would you call it? Confused foreign-speaker?

Mother tongue

Accordingly, there are different ways to define mother tongue. Wikipedia lists the criteria as based on (1) origin, (2) internal identification, (3) external identification, (4) competence and (5) function. Even then it doesn’t help to clarify things. Or maybe I am just overthinking something simple?

In my family, we speak a mix of four Chinese dialects (from across three different dialect groups). More often that not, we would roll out sentences with all four dialects in use and nobody would even bat an eyelid. Everyone understands each other, although non-family members who speak only one or two of the four would inevitably be lost in the conversation when we contaminate our discourse with the other dialects.

In school, we were taught both Malay and English. However, as time goes by, English becomes the dominant language of my life, considering I lived in an English-speaking country (Ireland) for over a decade. Meanwhile, I start to struggle with Malay. I still read it well and have no problem understanding most of conversations but speaking it is tough. Clearly, the lack of practice hits me hard. Each holiday back in Malaysia in recent years, it took me days to get my local lingo-mojo back!

For now, I remain proficient in Chinese but I dare not claim fluency in any of the dialects. Afterall, my knowledge is based on informal learning at home and through television (they do wonders to language learning when you are young, honestly). Apart from Mandarin lessons when I was 7-8 years old, I have not been tested in Chinese examinations of any kind since.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t a problem for me identify my mother tongue up until my teenage years. It was always Chinese. Today, however, English is my foremost used language, and how most people identify me as an adult. The debate within now is, which between the two is my mother tongue or first language? I think I’ll just skip the dilemma and go ahead with “I’m bilingual”.

Or maybe not?

How does one accurately gauge one’s level of language competence? I have debated with my friends, disagreeing their assertion of my proficiency, believing I am not as good as they claim. Let’s delve a little into it.

Language fluency takes into account the following components: (1) reading, (2) writing, (3) listening and (4) speaking. I am confident that I score 4/4 in English (with odd grammatical errors here and there), but I can’t say equally the same for Chinese. I could not write beyond some basic characters unless I am aided by computers which allows me to phonetically type what I want to say and I subsequently choose the corresponding characters from a list of words with the same sound. In this case, am I still deemed as proficient in Chinese writing? As for conducting conversations, vocabulary is a limiting factor and I feel I must fill in this gap of my knowledge first before I can claim fluency.

The impostor syndrome hits me every time someone tells me he/she is envious of my “linguistic ability”. “4 languages!” or “7 languages!” (depending if you count the Chinese dialects separately) may seem a lot to someone growing up in a single-dominant language culture, but in my family, I’m really not very special. Everyone speaks pretty much as many dialects/languages as I do. I have French added to my repertoire but I also have cousins who have previously learned French (not sure how much they remember though) and one of them even boasts fluency in Irish in addition. Another is currently learning Japanese.

Use it or (sort of) lose it

No brainer – everyone knows that language proficiency is lost when it is left to go rusty with time. Personally, the days of my maximal ideal in Malay have long passed. Nowadays, I am happy if I manage to hold a conversation for 5-10 minutes without borrowing from another language. But it does come back to me with some practice (and time). However, I believe this is possible likely because once upon a time, I was a fluent speaker.

I’m glad that French is coming along nicely but until the day I can debate someone without hesitation and with accurate choice of words, I will not consider myself as fluent. Or maybe I should set the benchmark at “being able to play crossword puzzles”? For now, I still need plenty of work on my grammar and vocabulary…

Languages fascinates me even if I don’t always have the time to properly study them. I have dipped my toes into the foreign territories of Italian and Arabic but ideally what I’d like is an opportunity to really work on them. I coped with Italian better for its many similarity to French. Arabic was another beast altogether. Its complex writing system compounds with guttural sounds means I have a lot more work to do before I can even realistically use it even at a basic level. I supposed it didn’t help either that I was learning it via French!

Learning new languages as adults is challenging. I find the more diverse a language is from those that I already know, the more time and effort I need to invest in it to make it stick. I also learn better with visual aid. The ability to match a written word relative to its sound matters. Some teachers think it’s easier to learn by listening and repeating words and phrases, but I had to disagree because this method doesn’t work for me. I need the connection between visual, aural and oral in tandem.

Tell me – how have languages shape the way you communicate and set up opportunities or barriers in your life? How do you represent your proficiency to others? Do you have any language wish-list? What are your tips in learning languages and maintaining them efficiently?



Category: Local lingo, Musing

Tagged: , , , ,

26 scribbles & notes

  1. Ani says:

    The minor inconveniences of being a polyglot. :)

    I never really count my indian languages, although I should. I note, therefore, that you’re ahead of me. Your 7 to my 5. Although since my two indian languages are completely distinct, they help me understand bits of several other, related ones. Tamil -> (Malayali, Kannada), Hindi -> (Gujrati, marathi, bengali). Although I still aim for an individual study of the languages. I love reading the language-origin articles on wiki. :)

    I always tell people my English is of “native fluency”, Tamil is my mother tongue, I speak french as fluent as tamil (maybe more so, but I’m ashamed to say it), followed by hindi (excellent accent, but child-level vocab), and then german at a basic conversation level. I never count Italian, of which I know only a few verbs and words. And not yet Spanish, which I’ve started learning now, and can only do kindergarten-level talks about cats, bats, and rats.

    I never mention the fact that my proficiency at written tamil is quite low. I can read at a decent clip, but writing is very hard. The problem is that spoken and written tamil are quite different. Written tamil is always in the formal or “pure” language (“Sen-tamizh”), and since I’ve never learned Tamil formally, I have almost no knowledge of it.

    Wish-list? Wow, that would be too long. Indian – Bengali, to start with. Japanese and spanish first. Then one day arabic and russian. Not to mention improving my french, and my german. I’m just so impatient. :)

    And you know I feel the same way. That mental shifting of gears, after having spent considerable time speaking in one language, is always a little slow. Even worse when juggling more than two. The worst was during the 5-hour German classes. Words of french slipping out, and my english coming out horribly for several hours afterwards.

    But the european languages never seem to affect my indian speech. Does it affect your chinese? I think the dissimilarity is too much even for an unconscious mélange-ing. See what I did there? That’s how we speak at home, albeit with a mélange of English, hindi and tamil. So there’s “Tanglish” and “Hinglish”, but I still haven’t come up with a name for what we speak at home.

    I have waaaay too much to say on this subject!

    I love speaking to people in their own language. Makes them friendlier (and instantly impressed).

    Tips? I practice. By writing to friends, often switching to a different language while I think. And I’m always on the lookout for sites that make learning fun, or make a game out of it.

    And, after reading 1984, I like to think that knowing multiple languages makes me a better thinker.

    Fortunately, I don’t think my “comment” is longer than your post. :)

    • Lil says:

      totally minor ;)

      you’re right that european languages not affecting my chinese dialects. strange that.

      i dare not even think about my wish list right now. first and foremost though, would be to get my french right and proper!

  2. medca says:

    wow…this is like a short thesis

    my 2 cents…a good indicator is when we think…in what language do we think in? ;)

    • Lil says:

      euuuuh… i have no idea! i don’t think i consciously use one over another? a friend used to ask what language i dream in. i can’t answer that either! it’s like the entire dream sequence goes by feel, not by language… :/

    • Chloé says:

      i think this is a very funny point.
      i know i can think (and dream too!) in both French and English, but i have rarely met people able to say the same. i do know a lot of people who can’t say they think (or dream) in any given language… maybe i’m just weird :P

    • Lil says:

      maybe you’re just more attuned rather than weird. wish i can say the same ;)

  3. flo says:

    Loved your post, Lilian!! With Santi, we’re starting to speak our own mix of Spanish and English, which means I can start a sentence in Spanish and end it in Spanish or replace words or so on. Must sound quite weird from outside!
    And when I’m back to France, my first day is dreadful and I do lots of mistakes in my own language !!
    Anyway, besos desde Barcelona!!
    :)

    • Lil says:

      hehehe… spanglish in action! ;)

      good to know it’s not just non-native struggling with language after a period of unused. have a good weekend and say hi to santi.

      gros bisous!

  4. Selena says:

    hmmm…. is it good or bad that I think and dream in both English and Hokkien? Occasionally I still dream in Malay! schizophrenic horr?
    ;-)

    • Lil says:

      wow i’m impressed! i can’t remember the last time i think or dream in malay… multiple languages at the same time, why not? ;)

  5. Chloé says:

    i think my English is mostly as fluent as my French and yet i have a hard time saying i’m fluent in English… i make a good amount of mistakes and often enough have to spend some time finding the right word. obviously, French is my native tongue, but i’m afraid i’ve learned English too young and i make mistakes in both languages (and inversions and idiom word-to-word translation…) my French is not very good compared to French standards. my English is not very good compared to English standards. oops!
    it also gets funny when i try to explain my problem with idioms to British-English people, as my examples come from American-English: according to them i’m simply making up idioms that are neither English or French (but actually American) so talk about me getting confused :$ still, i love my dust-bunnies, both in English and French.

    • Lil says:

      i am glad i don’t have british vs american english problem. otherwise, more confusion! (not that i have problem understand american english pretty well – thank you tv series :p )

  6. Jo says:

    Hahaha…you beat me to this post! This topic have been brewing in my head for ages…Totally agree with what you said about the impostor syndrome. I claim to be able to speak English, Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and French but in truth, I am only truly fluent in English & Malay because I can actually read, write and speak the language. Even though I am fluent enough in Cantonese to emcee a traditional Chinese wedding banquet in my “mother tongue” and likely pass as a local if I speak it in Hong Kong, I (sadly) cannot read or write enough of it to claim total fluency.

    My kids, on the other hand, fortunately or unfortunately, will not have this problem. They speak only English. When I was at their age, I was already speaking 3 languages…

    • Lil says:

      there is one major plus side of growing up in our country – we often speak multiple languages from very young age. for your kids, i guess english is a simple choice since it is the common languages that they could use in the countries that they had lived/are living in.

      still, it’s still not too late for soph and ju to pick up other languages! (just ask sila – her kids are learning all kinds of jumbled languages for now). i’m sure they pick up bits and pieces from kindies and schools too, so it’s probably a matter of time before they ponder why they’re semi-conversant in certain languages ;)

  7. sila says:

    i also claim to be bilingual (english & malay) and i would say i score 4/4 for both. at home in malaysia we spoke manglish. i can understand several chinese dialects, mostly obscenities, but i watched a lot of cantonese serials growing up and i always got mistaken as chinese so had to learn enough to get by. can’t read any of it (other than numbers 1-9). i read arabic but do not understand most of it. also i can read/write/converse simple russian (2 years intensive course in college) – used to be more than simple stuff but use it or lose it and really i don’t have many people with which to converse in russian. and due to living with a professor of the spanish language, i have picked up a lot of spanish too. i mostly dream in english. when thinking, it depends on the context. if thinking about raya and puasa, and food then i think in malay. business/work/technical stuff i think in english.

    i think that just makes me one confused person. i should feel lucky i can produce a sentence in any one language. :P

    • Lil says:

      i admit i often count in chinese, especially if i have to do multiplications :p but otherwise i’ve tried hard to figure it out in the last few days and still, i can’t say for certain what language i think in. darn…

      i should feel lucky each time i butchered french, i still get to keep my friends and the other french are forgiving about it!

      ps: i miss having the easy fluency in malay…

    • Selena says:

      it’s ok to live and dream in Manglish :-D

  8. Sarah says:

    Very interesting post!

    How to determine levels of language competence interests me a lot, as I am fluent in spoken French, and for listening. However my written French level is much lower!

    I also understand your issue with reaching a plateau in the new language while regressing in the old language. I’m finding that my spelling in English is disimproving. Also I’m losing vocabulary! I learn lots of new vocab in French from watching tv and listening to the radio (I find France info very good, because they have short segments on lots of different subjects). But then I have the problem that I don’t know the spelling or gender of the word…

    Another reason this whole subject interests me is because of my 6 month old baby. We want him to be bilingual. We know that each parent is supposed to ALWAYS speak their own language to the baby…this is not always practical so I start to feel guilty!

    • Lil says:

      I’m guilty of not making enough effort in French yet, which probably explains the plateau. I started reading a bit more, but I’m not listening to news or radio. Day-to-day conversations can only vary so much in terms of vocabulary.

      An Italian ex-colleague and her Irish husband speak Italian at home with the kids – and they absorb English from everywhere else – media, school etc. Perhaps both of you could make English the main household language (even if imperfect from your SO’s part) and let your baby absorb French everywhere else? Disclaimer: I don’t know if this is a foolproof method.

      On the other hand, you’d be surprised how much kids do learn. For example, at home, we don’t consciously choose one dialect over another and even through random mix like that, we managed to sort through the dialects alright with time. ;)

    • sila says:

      my friend has twins (age 6) who are trilingual – they speak and write english, russian and german. he said they were very strict and he spoke only russian to the kids and his wife only german, but like my hubs and me, their common language was english. so he said just be disciplined and lose some direct contact with your spouse. e.g., he would tell them about his day in russian, they would tell him about their day in russian. their mom and them converse in german. then the kids had to tell their dad about their mom’s day (thus translating from german to russian) and vice versa.

      we weren’t as disciplined though. my daughter (now 4) used to speak spanish and malay but has recently started rebelling and wanting to “talk regular english only” so despite your best efforts you can only do so much. i just keep trying to remember to speak malay and try to make it fun. that’s all you can do…

  9. Sheena says:

    It’s a cool post – and you talk about things I have almost daily conversations about.

    We always want to talk about our levels of fluency in a language, for one reason or another, but there’s really no good way of doing it. I find it the most difficult when updating my cv – what level of fluency should I claim? Standardised tests, IMO, are relatively useless with this (not to mention the fact that the non-English languages I speak well enough to care are small languages that no one would ever have a test for).

    Also, when it comes to language, written language is a secondary thing. We think of it as part and parcel of the language because it has become that way in our society – reading and writing are so closely entwined with language in our everyday life that we give them the same status as other aspects of the language. We talk about the four aspects – reading, writing, listening, speaking – when we talk about learning a language. But language is a natural part of being human – written language is a human invention. The processes of learning them both are very different (though, as you pointed out, they can aid one another). From a linguistic point of view, your ability to read/write in another language has nothing to do with whether or not you know that language. I’ve been trying to teach this point to my students just this last week.

    Another thing that irks me when people talk about multilingualism and fluency in another language – especially languages like Mandarin, English or French – is this notion that to be fluent in the language you must therefore speak some grammatically ‘correct’ form of some standardised dialect. Again, linguistically this idea has no merit whatsoever. In fact, the ‘rules’ that tend to go along with these more formal dialect tend to also be somewhat manmade – someone’s idea of how you ‘should’ speak. Other dialects may be considered substandard by society – but linguistically they are not, and definitely should be included when talking about fluency in different languages.

    For myself, I’ve noticed so many changes in my English over the years. After nine months in PNG, where I rarely spoke English, my English skills really diminished. My vocabulary atrophied to shocking levels (that I don’t think I’ve ever really fully recovered). And up until I went to PNG, I was basically monolingual (with some very basic French knowledge that doesn’t even give me the skills to hold up a basic conversation). So I quickly was losing some levels of proficiency in what was, up until that point, my only language.

    I have a lot of friends in China comment to me about how their English has taken on aspects of Chinglish. It’s not Chinese that’s interfering (because many of them don’t speak much, if any, Chinese.) It’s the English that’s spoken around them by Chinese speakers – and it seems it’s also the English that they speak with Chinese speakers. Not using difficult vocab, etc. – you seem to lose it.

    I also think of my grandmother who moved to Canada when she was five. Her first language was German, and didn’t start learning English until she was older. But she doesn’t use German and hasn’t for most of her adult life – and she no longer knows how to speak it.

    When I think about PNG, I think in Vinitiri (the langauge I speak there). Otherwise I think in English. Dreaming is different altogether. If the context makes sense, I can have, at least bits and pieces, of any other language I know a bit of. English and Vinitiri, of course, because I’m the most fluent in those. And Tok Pisin and Kuanua (both also from PNG) get thrown in at times. I’ve definitely even had Mandarin bits in my dreams, despite the fact that I (sadly) have only a very crude, basic skill level in Mandarin.

    Sometimes when I try to think about what I’m going to say in Chinese here, words in Vinitiri pop into my head instead. I’ve even used them when speaking Chinese, and of course, people get really confused. It was the same when learning Vinitiri – bits of French popped in all the time. Never English though. It seems to be a common phenomenon.

    Anyways, I could say so much more, but this has gotten way too long of a comment. Sorry…

    • Lil says:

      that’s a very interesting comment sheena! i’m glad for your clarification on the read/write/speak/listen front – i have never quite think it that way since i’ve been pretty much following the logic of “achieving fluency means ticking all four boxes”.

      for me, the notion of fluency is not, however, linked to being grammatically correct of dialect per se (as previously mentioned, we use a lot of mix-match when it comes to dialect use, and i know for sure the dialects i speak would be terribly misunderstood by other speakers of the same dialects from elsewhere, because some of the manner i speak would have been “localised” to where i learned it first.

      i do feel though, that i should put effort in getting the grammars correct when i learn a different language. it is afterall inherent structure to the language without which there would be some sort of disconnect…

  10. Sheena says:

    Sorry if my comment sounded really critical – I really didn’t mean that. That kind of mixing that you do is one of my areas of research interest – and it’s actually more common than not. I think that those of us who grew up in a more monolingual community don’t realise that. Your description of mixing sounds very similar to where I study in PNG. I think it’s really cool. Although I have to admit I’m still in a learning stage of reconciling western notions of language/dialect and Chinese notions of these two ideas. I wonder how much this issue comes into play in how fluent people see themselves in ‘Chinese’. (Thinking about how in western terms, things we would think of as different languages would be considered different dialects in Chinese. I think it makes it difficult, perhaps, to have the discussion in English – though that’s just a guess.)

    And I completely agree with you about getting the grammars correct when learning a different language. I was more thinking about the languages we learn as one of our first languages. When we learn a second language, being getting the grammar wrong is definitely just that – getting the grammar wrong. Which I think is completely different to getting it ‘wrong’ when it’s your first language. Usually that’s just a case of using a different variety than the standard

    • Lil says:

      not at all critical! it is very interesting but unfortunately i’ve been very busy lately to discuss more. languages are so fascinating!

      and even in terms of particular chinese dialect use, i’m very aware that mine has been put through the melange with local words, so if i am to speak with a chinese from, say, the mainland, who claims to speak one same dialect, chances are they would find it more difficult to understand me than the other way round, as i have 3 other dialects to draw references to and “locate” the meanings. i think.

  11. Bee Ean says:

    Hi Lilian,

    This is a very interesting article.

    I admire your English writing skills. I wish I have all those vocabularies to use when blogging.

    I consider Hokkien as my mother tongue. At work I deal often with numbers and I always count in Hokkien, or sometimes mandarin.

    Another aspect of language: what would you teach your kid out of so many languages that you know? I chose Mandarin right at the beginning. My husband supported my decision but he didn’t understand that, as a Malaysian, why didn’t I teach my daughter Malay. He can’t understand the co-existence of different languages in Malaysia. For him, someone who migrates to France has to speak French and his / her descendant will speak French.

    • Lil says:

      thanks bee ean – i’m glad that you enjoyed the article :)

      i think children should not miss out of family languages, so malay would be lower on my priority too as opposed to chinese and its various dialects. but i wouldn’t oppose to sneaking in malay words here and there so there’s familiarity too.

      unlike france, malaysia operates on a multi-lingual system whereas france is, relatively speaking, a mono-lingual country. immigrants to france would find it difficult to deal with all day-to-day administrations etc without speaking french. in malaysia, we have multiple options. even at the very least, english works well in replacing malay as mode of communication. having said that, the immigrants don’t just lose their mother tongues and would continue to use them with their children. afterall, they would have extended family (from home countries) to communicate with and who could very well not speak a lick of french!

      my niece now lives in ireland and there’s no doubt as she grows up english will be a dominant language for her. but within family, we’re using our usual mix of chinese dialects so hopefully she’ll pick those up too and use them.

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