The languages I look like (by Kathleen Green)

I’ve written on this blog before about my experiences as a speaker of French and English and how I feel myself self-categorizing, and being categorized by others, in relation to these two languages. Today, I’m going to add my third language, Mandarin, to the mix. Mandarin is a part of my daily life – these days, it’s present in the music that I listen to, it’s the subject of one of the classes that I teach, and it’s the language that I use to navigate applications on my computer and cell phone.

I haven’t written about my experiences as a user of Mandarin before, mostly because I don’t look like a person who should be able to speak Mandarin, and I don’t live in a place where I’m expected to speak Mandarin, so it often just doesn’t come up as a topic in my daily life. When the fact that Mandarin is one of my languages does come up, I’m inevitably reminded of the relationship between the languages I speak and what I look like.

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I currently teach in the languages department at a Cégep in Montréal. One of the courses I teach is Mandarin linguistics, so it’s fairly well known in the department that I speak, read and write Mandarin. The response from my colleagues has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s very impressive, they say, that I speak Mandarin. It must have been a very hard language to learn. It comes up often in conversation. I spend lots of time (seemingly humbly) fending off praise and telling people that it’s just a language, like any other. I feel fairly confident that my predecessor (the woman whom I am replacing while she’s on maternity leave) did not get as many looks of shock and amazement when she mentioned that she taught this course. But she looks like someone who can speak Mandarin.

My colleagues are not the first people to react in an overly positive way to my ability to speak Mandarin. This phenomenon is not specific to Montreal, or Canada. Before coming to Montreal, I lived in Taiwan, where I became somewhat used to being complimented on my fantastic (for a foreigner) Mandarin.

I spent two and a half years in Taiwan, as a Master’s student in linguistics. Over those two and a half years, my Mandarin improved and I lost the too-standard-sounding (to Taiwanese ears) pronunciation I’d acquired through my language education in Mainland China. But I always looked like an outsider. I was noticeably different, whether I was opening my mouth to speak or not. I came to dislike the way that people would compliment my Mandarin. It felt to me like just another way of pointing out that I was Other, no matter how hard I tried to learn to fit in. No matter how much I altered my speech to sound like the speech of the place where I lived (I now speak in a noticeably Taiwanese way), it was still noteworthy.

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I remember the anxiety I would feel each time I had to go to the bank to pay school fees, because I feared that my presence would cause the bank tellers to become visibly distressed. The first time this happened, I had walked in feeling a little unsure of myself (we don’t normally pay tuition at the bank in Canada, so I wasn’t sure exactly how it worked). I’d taken a number and sat down to wait my turn. Then, when my number was called, I stood up and walked towards the window of the free teller as she looked, panic-stricken, towards her colleagues. Feeling, now, very nervous and confused, I handed her my tuition slip and said, in Mandarin, “I’d just like to pay my tuition.” “Oh! You speak Mandarin!” she responded, looking quite a bit more relaxed, but still nervously laughing. “I didn’t know what I was going to do because I can’t speak English.” I don’t remember exactly how I responded to her, but I remember leaving the bank feeling like all the language classes in the world weren’t going to change the way that people interacted with me in Mandarin. I just don’t look like someone who speaks Mandarin. In Taiwan, I look like someone who speaks English. In Montreal, I look like someone who speaks French.

I think about this fairly often – the assumptions that people make about the languages that people speak based on what they look like. I’m always fascinated by how easily flight attendants on international flights address certain people in the language of the departure country and others in the language of the destination country. As we mentioned in our most recent BILD meeting, people in the service industry here in Montreal do it all the time. And as I said during that meeting, I’m not sure that this practice is entirely a bad thing. But I’m not sure I’m finished thinking about it, either. On the one hand, I know that being misread can be insulting and painful and exclusionary. On the other, I wonder how I could ask people to rethink their assumptions about other people’s linguistic abilities when those assumptions work for them 95% of the time. Or maybe it’s not the initial (and maybe practical) assumption that hurts and excludes, but the reaction that follows, when we find out that our assumption was wrong. Is there one kind of reaction that hurts and excludes less than another? Are there reactions that make us feel like we don’t look like our languages, and others that let us feel like our languages and bodies fit together just fine?



One thought on “The languages I look like (by Kathleen Green)

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I like to order Korean food at restaurants in Canada in Korean. The servers often look at me and ask me to repeat what I’ve said…they’re not expecting a white-faced person to speak “their” language. It’s fascinating!


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