Language and Identity: Who Am I?

I’ve always found the interrelationship between language and identity fascinating. It’s something I think about a lot, as a 25 year old multilingual who spends nearly all her free time on language learning.

I’m sure my personality contributes to this, as well. I spend a lot of time thinking, reading and listening – I prefer engaging with the world around me through relatively passive means that allow more room for reflection, because it is through reflection that I discover who I am and solidify my sense of self.

As of now, I speak Mandarin Chinese, English, Malay, Korean, Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) and a little bit of French, which I’ve recently started studying. Among these languages, I would say Mandarin Chinese, English, Malay and Korean have had the biggest impact on my identity, albeit in very different ways.

English

The impact English has had on my life is something I find difficult to put into words. I started studying it when I was 13, and while I can’t pinpoint the exact point in time at which I achieved fluency, I’d say it was around the time I started attending college. I was in love with the language. I ceased nearly all input in my native language and substituted it with American films, music, games and books. Such complete immersion was probably one of the key reasons why I was able to become fluent so quickly – everything I did, I did it in English.

Today, I consider English the ‘primary language’ of my life. It is the language I favour when it comes to reading and writing, and I think part of this is due to the fact that my acquisition of English happened during adolescence, which constituted some of the most formative years of one’s life. It was during those years that my identity began to really take shape, which found expression mostly through the ideas and information I was consuming in English, at that time.

The resulting impact on my values is considerable. These days, I often feel like an outsider among my Chinese friends, many of whom find me too westernised. I have to consciously tone down my ‘other-ness’ in order to fit in. I do the same with friends who are native speakers of the English language, despite knowing that no matter how much I try, I will never be one of them.

While I’m pretty fluent, my English is far from perfect. There are still things I find difficult to articulate in English, and in those moments I become painfully aware of the fact that I am an outsider in this language. Or when someone comments on my accent, which is a strange mix of influences from all around the world as a result of learning from a diverse, global group of friends that I’d met over the internet. On some days it’s a cool conversation starter, and on some other it is the subject of mockery. Most of the teasing and ridicule come from my fellow countrymen, though, who see my odd accent as a symbol of me putting Western cultures on a pedestal and discarding my national identity as a Malaysian in favour of a westernised one.  

I should probably mention that a lot of Malaysians speak ‘Manglish’, which is a pidgin comprising influences from several local languages. I picked it up when I was in college in hopes of fitting in, because apparently speaking in grammatically correct sentences meant I was an ‘angmoh wannabe’.

I must have developed some sort of inferiority complex regarding my accent, because these days my immediate reaction to the question ‘Hey, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but where are you from?’ is sheer embarrassment. I feel inauthentic somehow – like I’m a fake Malaysian, or a fake whatever-they-think-I-am.  

I speak pretty good Manglish now, and I can manage a conversation without slipping into my real accent, if I want to. I should probably just stick to it from now on, if I want people to stop making fun of me. Maybe I’ll finally feel 100% Malaysian.

Except I don’t really know if I want to, because I’m pretty sure it takes more than just an accent to be and feel like a Malaysian.

Mandarin Chinese

As my native language, Mandarin Chinese will always have a special place in my heart. It is the language of my childhood, and for the first 12 years of my life, the only language I was truly fluent in. I’ve been an avid reader since I was 7, and up until my love affair with English, I read only in Mandarin Chinese. I also wrote a lot – mostly poetry and short stories. In short, it was the language through which I discovered the wonderful world of literature and learned how to express myself through words. I loved the language, too. It was my favourite subject in school. I even dreamed of majoring in it eventually and becoming a writer one day.

But all that came to a halt when I was 13. I became so enamoured with English that I stopped consuming books, music and films in Mandarin Chinese, in order to make time for English ones. I still spoke Mandarin Chinese with my friends and family, but my reading and writing skills stopped progressing. Outside of the weekly Mandarin Chinese lessons at school, I wasn’t really getting any Mandarin Chinese input.

As a result, my native language was largely absent throughout my adolescent years. And now, as a 25 year old adult, I’m beginning to see the full extent of the consequences. I’m a copywriter, and while I mostly write in English, I do have to write in Mandarin Chinese occasionally, especially when there’s a project that is due soon and they have no time to outsource it to a professional Mandarin Chinese copywriter. The difference between my English and Mandarin Chinese writing skills is painfully stark. I also find it difficult to read English books that have been translated to Mandarin Chinese, because my brain keeps translating it back to English and the constant alternation between the two languages is mentally exhausting.

Outside of work, I also find it difficult to express certain thoughts in Mandarin Chinese. I’m limited by the vocabulary and proficiency level of 12 year old me. In a way, it’s almost as if the Chinese part of my Self never grew up. That, or she skipped adolescence and made it to adulthood without the actual experience of getting there, and is now a child trapped in an adult body, feeling lost and confused whenever she is confronted with the complex challenges and subtleties of adulthood.

Whenever that happens, she runs away and goes to sleep, and her English alter-ego comes out to save the day. Unlike her, the English alter-ego is logical, eloquent, and perhaps a little bit cold. Words that come with childhood connotations for her Chinese counterpart are completely neutral for her. This creates an emotional distance between her and the subject matter that allows her to think and articulate her thoughts with an analytical edge that her Chinese alter-ego finds impossible to replicate.

I’ve been working on regaining and improving my Mandarin Chinese skills – mostly reading and writing – in hopes of bridging this disconnect. I may be able to reduce the gap, but I don’t think eliminating it entirely is possible. My values, for example, will remain what they are – partially Chinese, partially Malaysian and partially Western. There will always be parts of my worldview that I can’t quite reconcile with the Chinese language, and I suppose I have no choice but to accept it.

There’s also the fact that the Mandarin Chinese we speak here in Malaysia is considered somewhat broken. We ignore certain grammar rules, we have our own words for certain things, and we pronounce things differently – almost like a dialect, except without the status of one. The worst thing is, everyone agrees that it is ‘wrong’ and on the whole too crude to be used in writing, broadcasts or formal/academic contexts. There’s a certain kind of shame associated with it – when we talk to native speakers from China, we – well, many of us do – try to mimic them and downplay our ‘Malaysian-ness’.

It’s hard to find language exchange partners too, because no one wants to speak like us, and I don’t blame them, considering the status of our ‘dialect’ (I don’t know what else to call it).  I’ve experienced similar rejection with English, but there’s nothing quite like being told by non-natives that you’re not native enough in your native language. It hurts, because it makes me feel alienated in my own mother tongue. But I suppose the worst part of all this is that deep down inside, I agree with them. And every time I put on a Beijing accent to hide my real one, even as a survival mechanism, I’m rejecting myself. That hurts more.

Malay

Malay is the national language of Malaysia. As a Malaysian, I should be fully fluent in this language, yet sadly, I am not.

Here’s why – I went to a Chinese primary school, then to a public secondary school where the majority of the student population was Chinese. And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I went to a predominantly Chinese university, where virtually everyone communicated in Mandarin Chinese outside of the classroom (lessons were conducted in English). So even though I’ve been learning Malay since I was 4, I’ve had no real use for the language outside academic contexts.

This is a great example of how racial relations are currently like in Malaysia – many of us live in closed, homogenous communities, despite our claim of being a truly multicultural country. In my case, most of it was due to my parents’ decision – I had no say in where we lived (a predominantly Chinese town) and which schools I attended, including university.

Over the past few years, I came to realise just how segregated we are, which I find deeply saddening, and believe me, I am sad about the sorry state of my Malay skills. I can understand a great deal, but I can’t speak very well, and my writing skills, which used to be pretty good, have deteriorated greatly since I stopped using them after graduating from secondary school.

I am trying to rectify this, though. I started studying Malay again a few months ago, mostly through reading, listening and speaking, and I hope to achieve true fluency one day.  It’s a beautiful language, and I wish I’d realised sooner how important it is. I’m also learning Korean and French, but studying Malay feels different, somehow. It’s special. I think in a way, it is the only thing I have left that is keeping me anchored to my identity as a Malaysian, which has been fractured over the years due to various factors, such as my upbringing, the constant cultural clashes I experienced growing up as I struggled to reconcile foreign values with familiar ones, and the glorious, disorienting mess that is linguistic schizophrenia.

Korean

I’ve been learning Korean for three and a half years now, and while I’m not completely fluent yet, I consider myself fairly proficient in it. I think in the language sometimes, and occasionally, I even dream in it.

I don’t think I’ve internalised enough of the Korean language yet for its effects on my psyche to fully manifest, but I’ve been noticing certain changes, and I can feel it taking root in me. For example, my sister, who’s also learning Korean, has pointed out that my sentences in Mandarin Chinese and English are slowly becoming oddly Korean-ised, in the sense that they sound as if they were translated directly from Korean.

Learning Korean has also allowed me to reconnect with my native language, somehow. Despite the difference in sentence structure (Korean is S.O.V while Mandarin Chinese is S.V.O), the two languages share a lot of similarities in terms of how things are worded. It’s easier for me to translate from Mandarin Chinese to Korean than from English to Korean. As a result, I found myself thinking a lot more in Mandarin Chinese after I started learning Korean – at least in the beginning.

We share a lot of cultural similarities as well. When I’m speaking Korean, I find myself downplaying the more Western parts of myself and tapping into the more Asian side of me, which has been neglected since I adopted English as the primary language of my life.


I think the fact that I had to separate my anecdotes by languages says it all. It reflects how I perceive my identity in relation to languages – fragmented. I have to compartmentalise all these parts of myself to keep them from coming into direct conflict with each other, which they do, every now and then, and the dissonance is painful. I’m comfortable in a handful of languages, but I feel at home in none – not even my native language. There isn’t a language that I feel like I can fully express myself in. I don’t truly belong in any of them, and a part of me thinks I never will – it’s a lonely feeling.

But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t change a thing, because without these experiences, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. For the most part, I like myself just the way I am, multilingual or not. And at the end of the day, I think, that’s all that matters.