My Language Biography of Two Identities

By Wai In Chan

Hello everyone! This is a bit late in the semester, but I still wanted to share my language biography with all of you and hear your thoughts about how I identify myself. I am of Asian descent, born in Hong Kong, China. I speak Cantonese, English, and French (very basic!).

My family immigrated to Canada in order to start a better life when I was two years old, and we have lived here ever since. My mother had gone abroad to Canada as an international student prior to her marriage and my birth. Therefore, she had some knowledge of the English language and completed some education here. Due to these circumstances, I was able to complete my studies here in Canada in English.

I consider English and Cantonese my mother tongues because they were the first languages I learned while living here after being able to talk properly, but some people would argue otherwise. I went to English school with some French classes, and I also went to Cantonese language classes on the weekend. I grew up primarily focused on learning the English language, as this is the language that I used most often outside of the house and at school with my teachers and friends. The strange thing is that I grew up hating Cantonese because I was being forced to learn it and I did not find it useful then. As I grew older, I became more resistant and started questioning what was the purpose of learning a language I did not need in a place where people did not speak it. My early language biography comprised of mainly English and very small touches of the French language that I was being taught at school.

It took many years before I realized the importance of learning my heritage language because it was my one gateway to forming connections to my culture and country. I remember it was one day in Cégep, when I first met my Cantonese friends (who are still my friends today) that I began to appreciate having the ability to speak my heritage language. We were able to form a bond and friendship through the language itself because it felt comfortable for me, that I was in the presence of other people who were also comfortable using the language. As I learned to embrace my heritage, I began to understand why my parents had forced me to learn the language. It was not because they wanted to force me to learn a “useless” language, it was to reveal the roots of my heritage and assist me in finding a part of my identity. Additionally, the language was the only thing they had that actually made them feel at home in a foreign country and made them proud of where they came from.

Consequently, this is why Chinatown became my second home because the people there spoke Cantonese and were from a similar background. While people on the outside think that this is a form of isolating others from our community, I see it as a sanctuary for immigrants that may have been forced to come to Canada for a better life. It is also a place where we know that we will be understood by others, and not judged for our differences in way of life. I view it as a “break” from the Canadian culture that we often live in our everyday lives.

This experience with my heritage language has built the language biography I have today. I consider myself to be a Cantonese-Canadian, but primarily Cantonese/Chinese because I associate more with my country’s culture and traditions than Canada’s. However, English plays just as important of a role in my life because it allowed me access to another culture with opportunities, where I met some of the most amazing people and have had some of the best experiences in my life. While this is what I believe about myself, it is not how others have felt. I have often told other people that I am a “Hong Konger” first and foremost, and a Canadian afterwards (resulting from my eventual citizenship as a permanent resident). My Canadian friends have protested against this statement because they think I should consider myself a Canadian first, if I am to live in this country. However, I remain devoted to my culture and language because without it, I would not be the individual that I am today. To summarize, I view my language biography as a constant struggle between my English Canadian identity and my Cantonese Chinese identity, of which I am not sure if there could ever be a peaceful integration.

4 thoughts on “My Language Biography of Two Identities”

  1. Hi Wai In,
    Thank you for sharing your language biography. You wrote about feeling a tension between your two identities (English Canadian and Cantonese Chinese), but still that you consider both English and Cantonese as your first languages. The field of language education is grounded on this persistent idea that learners have one and only one first language (L1, L2, etc.), but many (most?) people claim more than one first language. How, then, are pedagogies and practices responding to and drawing on the many linguistic resources that people bring to class? We will talk so much more about this in the class on multilingualism and education, but for now, I thank you for sharing your biography and highlighting why this kind of sharing is so important – it helps us understand the “blind spots” in our field.


  2. From Cheryl Lingjuan Yan (comment#1)
    Hi Wai In, thank you fro sharing your story with us! I totally understand the way you felt when you are talking about your language learning experience. You mentioned you were confused about why you should learn your heritage language–Cantonese. Indeed, sometimes it is hard for people to stick to learning a language which seems to be useless in their daily life, especially when they are young. Your experience resonates with mine. I was born and raised in China. English is one of the compulsory courses taught in schools, even though China is a monolingual society. I started to learn English when I was in grade three. Although I always got good grades in English, I did not really see why I should learn it because it appeared to be unnecessary for me to pick up another language. However, now I feel that English is important because it helps me to broaden my horizons and see this world from a different perspective. Therefore, it is always good to learn something new because you will never know when you will use it in the future.


  3. Geraldine Gras (comment 2):

    Thank you for sharing your language biography. I wanted to focus my response on a specific part of your blog post where you mention Chinatown, and the different perceptions regarding these cultural communities implementing a geographic location specific for their language, culture and at times, religion.

    I am a very proud Montrealer who generally claims that this city is the definition of diversity. However, I have recently observed that although this city welcomes with open arms various cultures – the same is not applicable for languages. While you may be able to find authentic restaurants or clothing items from a particular culture, finding a group of people who are also able to communicate in the designated language (for example: Cantonese) is more difficult.
    As we’ve seen throughout the semester, language and culture and intertwined. In the desire of wanting to communicate in Cantonese, it seems natural that you seek interactions with people who share similarities with you culturally. It is unfortunate that others may view places like Chinatown as a way of excluding ones’ self from the dominant culture as opposed to rewarding gatherings. I think anyone can relate that sometimes all you need a touch of home, may it be through food, music or language. Is it fair for your friend to ask you to identify with your Canadian identify more so than you Chinese identity? In my opinion, many immigrants (if not most) adapt to the culture and languages of this province without making much of a fuss. It is not because people adapt that they adopt the language or culture in question.
    Thank you for writing about this, I think I just found the new topic of my next blog post!


  4. Hi, Wai In , thank you for sharing your story with us. I totally understand your feeling and confusion towards your identity and language learning experience. It is good that you keep your heritage language and in the meantime you successfully merge to the mainstream culture. In China, English is the compulsory course in school and we have to learn it. Even sometimes, I think it outweighs our mother tongue Chinese to some extent.


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