There are many things about living in Paris that surprise me. The mass chaos that is grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon. The number of times the RER B can be delayed in one day because of sick passengers. The fact that even though Paris is a major cosmopolitan city, I always have to double check business hours of any place I want to go to just to make sure they’re not closed on Tuesdays.
But something that I hadn’t expected to confront during my time here is the privilege of being a native anglophone.
I realize that this is a loaded statement and in other ways a political statement. There is a lot to unpack here, so I am going to do my best to explain what I mean.
Before I start digging in, I think it’s important to contextualize my perspective. I am an American who is currently living in Paris and working on a master’s degree. I was born to Taiwanese immigrants, raised in three different states in the United States, and spent most of my young adult life in Utah. My first language was Mandarin, but English is now my dominant language because of my environment and education. I lived in France for a year after college and can hold my own in most conversations and situations, but I am reticent to claim “fluency” because I could never pass as a francophone.
Mandarin was my first language, but it wasn’t the first language of my parents. My parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all speak to each other in Taiwanese Hokkien. My late maternal grandfather was a child during Japanese occupation of Taiwan and was educated in Japanese. My late paternal grandfather, born in 1920, was never formally educated and spoke only Hokkien. Mandarin was institutionalized in Taiwan after 1945 during the period of martial law. The cousins of my generation, like many young Taiwanese people, have the ability to code switch between Mandarin and Hokkien. As an adult, I’m left with a casual grasp of Mandarin speech tinted with a particular American-born Taiwanese accent and am pretty much illiterate when it comes to reading (though I am working on changing this).
It’s strange to think that these kinds of drastic linguistic changes can happen in the span of three generations and that it’s possible for someone like me to claim native anglophone as part of my identity when my paternal grandfather didn’t even speak Mandarin. Linguistic identity can change so quickly from one generation to the next. The reality is that English is the language that I feel most comfortable expressing my thoughts and emotions. As the world becomes more and more global, this is the reality for many people.
English is an undeniable linguistic and cultural force. It is the language that I was given by my parents, not by their own tongue, but by their choice to move to America.
Mandarin too is an undeniable linguistic and cultural force. It is the language that I was given by my parents, this time by their own tongue, because of a choice that was made for them in 1945.
I often question how hard I should work to nurture one language versus the another.
What does being in Paris have to do with all of this?
When I signed up for my classes this past summer, I purposely picked classes that were in English because I was scared of taking topics like economics and policy analysis in French. I told myself that I would give myself one semester to adjust to life in Paris before making the leap to coursework in French.
When I showed up this fall, I quickly realized that I was being a coward. My French and other international classmates, sat in the same English classes with me. I’m sure they would prefer taking classes in their native tongue, but current global economic powers dictate that English makes you more employable. And while the system of education I am in is distinctly French, I get the luxury of sifting through new subject material in my native language.
I often find myself thinking about how incongruous it is that I get to sit in a classroom on the other side of the Atlantic, in a country with its own history, language, and traditions, and yet still be taught in English. It seems strange to me.
Yes, I realize I signed up for this. I voluntarily chose a degree program in English in France. This is my own doing. At the time of my decision to go to school in France, I considered many things: course options, professors, extra-curricular opportunities, potential networks, the city itself. One of the things I didn’t really consider was what it would feel like to be a native anglophone in an international school where English is one of the lingua franca.
The native languages of my classmates greatly vary, from French to German to Italian to Spanish to Chinese to Japanese to Czech to Hindi and many more. However, the language that we share in class is English.
In some ways, I feel like I cheated the system. I get to go to class in the language in which I’m most comfortable. I can see why many native anglophones never bother to learn another language. The world seems to be tailored for us.
And yet, every part of my existence is diametrically opposed to this idea that knowing English is enough. I’m sure a lot of my resistance to monolingualism is due to my identity as the daughter of immigrants. The feeling of cultural loss that is associated with not sharing the same linguistic traditions as my parents is something that I continue to grapple with as an adult.
I remember living with my aunt and cousin in Taiwan a few summers ago while I was doing an internship there. One of my most distinct memories is seeing the two of them making jokes in a shared language with the same shared literary and cultural references. It was only then when I realized that I had never had that kind of interaction with my own parents.
That’s not to say that my family didn’t make jokes. We laughed a lot, but it was never in reference to the same literary and cultural history.
Though this anecdote may seem sad, I try not to internalize it that way. Without these lived experiences of cultural loss, I would never understand just how much a culture is tied to its language. It would be that much harder for me to understand the subtle nuances that we ascribe to our identities through language and culture.
As an Asian American woman who spent most of her life in the United States, it’s not very often that I get to say that I am part of the dominant culture. However, as a native anglophone in an international environment, I find myself in a position of power. I get to navigate most of my academic and professional environments without having to give additional thought to my manner of speaking. I can make references to American current events without having to do the heavy lifting of explaining the cultural context. I can use English to succinctly describe complex concepts without worrying about questions of translation.
I know this is not the same for non-native anglophones because ironically when I’m in my home country of the United States, I spend a lot of my time explaining to white people the Taiwanese part of my identity. I also know it is not the same for non-native anglophones because I know what it’s like to have different relationships with different languages.
In Mandarin, I feel like a child because of my limited vocabulary and the dependency I have on my parents to continually fuel my relationship with that language. In French, I feel like an awkward teenager who second guesses every decision, always trying to add bigger words or to find a turn of phase to sound more intelligent. In English, I finally get to be me. (For more on relationships with languages, I highly recommend Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words.)
It is a privilege to feel at home in English and I recognize it as such.
In my life, I feel like I have constantly navigated questions of cultural and linguistic dominance. The balance changes depending on where I am. In the US, where it’s just an expectation that you speak English, I never questioned the advantages of being able to speak English. It seemed obvious to me. If you are in the US, it is useful to speak English. This idea was ingrained in me as a child when I witnessed the challenges my parents faced finding their way in American society as immigrants.
When I moved to France, I assumed that I needed to learn French to the same degree that immigrants to the US need to learn English. I assumed that it if I didn’t speak French perfectly that it would impede my ability to integrate. After all, I grew up in a country where I have witnessed immigrants be politically, economically, and socially left behind because of linguistic barriers.
I soon realized that I was overestimating the degree of this necessity.
Don’t get me wrong. It is still incredibly useful and necessary to speak French in France. It means that I don’t have to struggle at the grocery store or at the bank and that I can make small talk with new people. But what I hadn’t considered was the advantages of being an anglophone.
I’ve started to realize that as an anglophone, I don’t feel as much pressure as other immigrants to learn French all thanks to English’s current global utility. The pressure for me to learn French in France is not the same as the pressure for my parents to learn English in America. The pressure for me to learn French in France is not the same as the pressure for an immigrant from a non-anglophone country to learn French in France.
And to be completely honest, it makes me sad to realize that this is the unfortunate reality. Like I said earlier, I can see why anglophones might not be motivated to learn another language. In economic terms, the cost for an anglophone to learn another language doesn’t always meet the benefit or maximize utility. But in the end, I still think at best it is an ignorance or laziness and at worst a negligent hubris for anglophones who are able to travel or work in a global context not to reflect on the effects of linguistic (and by extension cultural) dominance.
Anyway, all of this is just a long digression on how I think language and culture are deeply tied to different positions of power and how I’ve witnessed and experienced varying expressions of these power dynamics in my own life. My background and personal history play a major role in why I want to learn other languages. I want to learn languages not only to understand another culture (in the case of French), or to better understand my own culture (in the case of Mandarin), but also because I recognize that learning another language means engaging in an interaction and a system that has the potential to shift power from one direction to another.
P.S. I feel like this is a given, but just in case it’s not obvious, I need to add the disclaimer that these power dynamics always shift depending on who you are, where you are coming from, and where you are going.