A Discussion on Identity and English as a Global Language

Posted by Cheryl Lingjuan Yan (Post #2)

The word “Multilingualism” refers to the use of two or more languages, either by an individual speaker or by a community of speakers (Tucker, 1999). When I first came to Canada, I found people here in Montreal to be amazing. Most people are at least bilingual and almost everyone can speak three or four languages. People all come from different background, or, to be more specific, have different identities, for instance, Canadian, French, half-Spanish, full-Korean, etc. The reason why Montrealers can speak so many languages derives from the city’s history, and it also may partially be because of its colonial culture. Quebec was founded and colonized by French settlers for a long time. Therefore, French culture has a strong influence on Quebec. In addition, Canada is one of the members of the British Commonwealth. Perhaps these are the reasons people in Montreal are at least bilingual in English and French.

I feel that with the background of multilingual communities, people today have greater mobility. And everyone has different identities on different occasions. Take myself as an example, I am Chinese, an international student in Canada, an ESL teacher at language schools, classmates of other SLE students, the daughter of my parents, etc. I come from China, which is a monolingual society. Mandarin is the only language we use to talk with friends or colleagues at work and in classroom settings. After being here in Canada, I use English as a lingua franca to talk with Anglophones, Francophones and speakers of other languages. The use of language is one way of emphasizing personal identities.

According to Crump (2014),  “Identity is something someone has, and it is static, uniform, and countable. This enables sweeping much diversity into discrete, countable categories, which renders that heterogeneity invisible” (p. 208). We always categorize people according to where they come from, and we always label others as “white” “Jewish” “homosexual” “upper middle class”, etc. This reminds me of when we discussed ethnicity in class three weeks ago. The first thing we came up with when we wanted to categorize people was their ethnicity. Every ethnic group has its own culture and heritage language. Or, maybe because of English colonization, people in certain countries have become more comfortable speaking English instead of their heritage languages.

We often name a language according to where it originates from. For example, English people speak English; French people speak French. However, this is not necessarily always the case. Montrealers serve as a good example to illustrate this point. As I mentioned previously, they are proficient in both English and French without necessarily coming from England or France. I was really intrigued by the video clip Alison showed to the class three weeks ago about the history of English language. The great diversity of English shows how important languages are. English has become a dominant language in almost all facets in our society, politics, economy, education, etc. Doubtlessly, L2 English users continue and will continue to grow, far exceeding the the number of native speakers. I believe English has become a language with the most most speakers in the world not only because of Britain’s previous colonization in many places, but also because of the value associated with it. In China, learning English represents a better future and more job opportunities. Thus, English, as a language universally used, is developing so fast because of the enormous economic and academic values invested in it.

I found two video clips which is quite relevant, and you might want to see these:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljxuPLyn0qs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njJBw2KlIEo

References

Crump, A. (2014). Introducing LangCrit: Critical Language and Race Theory. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 11, 3, 207-224.

Tucker, G. R. (1999). A global perspective on bilingualism and bilingual education. Georgetown University round table on languages and linguistics, 332Á340.

4 thoughts on “A Discussion on Identity and English as a Global Language”

  1. Hi Cheryl,
    Thank you for this. I’d like to add one more piece to the definition of identity you shared, as that is just one side of the coin, in my view. Identity is indeed often seen as something that someone HAS – these are labels we use to put people into relatively tidy categories. However, identity is also something that someone DOES and this is where it becomes more complex, fluid, and where we talk about identity as a performance. What does it mean to perform/ do an identity of a half-Korean (and presumably, half something else) person in Montreal? There is no single formula for this and each individual will experience and negotiate who they are and who they want to be recognized as differently over time and in different contexts.
    I find it very interesting that the multilingualism of Montreal stands out for you, in contrast to China, which you say is monolingual (i.e., everyone speaks Mandarin). From our discussions in class and several of the language biographies, I imagine China to be very multilingual with a multitude of local dialects. Mandarin may be the language associated with a standard and used for education, but don’t many (most?) Chinese people also speak at least one local dialect? Doesn’t that count as multilingualism? I’m curious to know what you think.

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  2. As I was reading your post, I felt the same as Alison: even though there definitely is a lot of languages in Montreal, I feel that China is way more multilingual than Montreal! You have seven dialect groups (Mandarin, Wu, Min, Yue, etc.) just in the eastern parts of the country and then you even have all the languages that are not Chinese, like Tibetan (in Tibet) and Uyghur (in Xinjiang). As I traveled all over China, I was amazed to see all the different languages. Even on the banknotes there are no less than 5 different scripts, including Chinese (in Pinyin!), Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang (which I have never even seen outside of the banknotes).

    I don’t know about you but I think that for me, it’s probably because I was simply in a new environment. I’m used to Montreal, it’s my country, so I don’t really realize that everything is diverse. However, since in China it was a new environment, I became really aware of everything.

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    1. Hey Simon, I guess you are right. Maybe because Canada is your country, you already get used to the lifestyle here. So you do not really find anything unique. But for me it’s totally different. It’s amazing you have travelled all over China. As a Chinese, I didn’t even have a chance to visit Tibet and Xinjiang myself.
      But based on my twenty years’ living and studying in China, I would like to share what I know, and hopefully it can help to clear your confusion.
      First, about the banknotes. Banknotes in five scripts, that’s probably what you can only see where people of minority groups live. For most parts in Mainland China, Chinese simplified is the only language accepted in writing form, sometimes we add English translation. And I don’t think you will receive a banknote in Pinyin in China. Pinyin is just a tool for beginners to use to learn Mandarin pronunciation, so it is definitely inappropriate in official documents. However, when it comes to the terminology, we keep the word in Pinyin when translating into English. I guess that’s probably what you saw.
      Second, about the statement “China is a monolingual society”. Sorry I didn’t make myself clear. I also talked to Alison after class. That’s what she told me, and I would like to share it with you: there are actually many different definitions about being “monolingual”. By saying monolingual, I didn’t take into account of the dialects. For example, Canadian English, American English and British English, I see them as dialects of English. But Spanish, Italian and German, they are different languages. For instance, what you mentioned “Yue”, is more commonly referred to as Cantonese, which widely used in Southern part of China. But I don’t see it as a language. I would say it is a dialect used in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong. Cantonese and Mandarin share similar sentence structure. It’s only a matter of pronunciations.
      Hope it helps!

      Cheryl

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  3. Hi there,
    I liked your post a lot! My favourite part of it was when you mentioned that English has become a global language. That’s absolutely true! Also, I heard that nowadays knowing English is one of the assets for all potential Chinese employees residing in China because of the immense English influence on commerce, education, and economy; however, I can’t say that in Quebec we’re faced with something similar, or at least it’s all about the workplace.
    What I personally noticed, and what turned out to be accurate, is that the majority of Montrealers have to be first proficient in French and then in English, due to the government policy (Bill 101), and the reality, unfortunately.

    Briefly about myself: when I started looking for a job as an ESL teacher in Montreal (a few years ago), the first question that I was asked at a job interview was about my French proficiency, for my students first language was French. That’s so sad and frustrating! In the meantime, I’m certain that Montreal as one of the greatest and spectacular cities of Quebec attracts millions of intelligent and educated people by its bilingualism and openness.
    Glad you like Montreal.
    Best,
    Natalie L.

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