As a non-native English speaker, my accent will always be a part of me, no matter how it recedes over time. It is somewhat difficult to accept that despite a lifetime of parroting the desired “American” accent, there will be small but perceptible differences that mark my English as non-native. My experiences in high school with trying to register for regular-track English classes dramatize what Lippi-Green theorizes about in her essay “The Language Myth.” I was trying desperately to construct a new Sound House, as Lippi-Green conceptualizes the task of learning an accent in a second language, but all my counselor heard was my original Sound House, built-in Mandarin Chinese, marking me as a newcomer, inexperienced and incapable. Despite my obvious commitment to my academics and background in learning English both at home and at school, this counselor, acting as a gatekeeper, used the results of one test, along with my perceived “accent,” to restrict my access to a certain level of education. This mirrors the anecdote Lippi-Green relates to James Kahakua, the aspiring radio broadcaster, whose Hawai’ian accent limited his opportunities for job advancement. When Kahakua sued his employer, an accent reduction specialist testified, and eventually, the court found that Kahakua’s accent was a disadvantage, and the employer was legally able to deny him promotion on those grounds. However, Lippi-Green notes that an accent reduction specialist is not a neutral, objective party; rather, this is a person with a career bias towards preserving the difference between what is considered standard, and what is considered an accent—a special irony in this case, as Kahakua’s job was located in his native Hawai’i and involved pronouncing the names of native Hawai’ian places. So, too, did my counselor have a bias towards preserving the difference between “English language learner” and “proficient English speaker.” ESL teachers also have a vested interest in preserving this dichotomy; without English language learners, there is no need for ESL teachers. The line between English language learner and speaker of accented English is not a clear one, and it is the cultural gatekeepers, not the speakers themselves, who determine one’s membership in each group.
Part of my Sound House was built in those early years with my family, watching “Family Album, USA.” Despite the fact that we moved to Canada, my father’s image of the “ideal” accent was an American one. Of course, there is no true singular American accent; the USA is an enormous country with many different regions, each with its own particular accent(s). My father’s perception of the “American” accent is linked to the overall perception of Standard American English, or SAE: English spoken by “educated” people, and therefore accorded higher social status. This higher social status depends on everyone agreeing that this form of English is the most desirable; as Lippi-Green points out, discussions about standard language often have an emotional tone even in seemingly objective places (like dictionary definitions), as people are personally invested in their perceptions of what makes something “correct.” Standard English, according to these definitions, involves no mispronunciations, misinflections, or mistakes. Lippi-Green cites the study of Dennis Preston (1989), who found in a survey of Midwestern college students that the most “correct” English was judged to be that perceived as the most neutral; however, Lippi-Green points out that these perceptions tend to be both shifting and subjective, in addition to illusory: there is no such thing as the homogenous, neutral “American” accent prided by my father. Interestingly, as I noted above, my father does not choose to speak English in his day-to-day life; he would rather speak correct Chinese than non-standard English. In doing so, however, he shows a tacit agreement with the system that promotes certain forms of English over others, despite the fact that this system is largely self-perpetuating and highly subjective, as shown in Preston’s study.
My father’s attitude toward acquiring English, and the values of my family as a whole, are closely mirrored in the work of Chao (2013). I saw many of my struggles to acquire English and my determination to do so mirrored in the work of Ping, right down to writing out class assignments in Chinese and then translating them to English. The attitude of the family of the students is also very similar to mine; my parents supported and encouraged my efforts, while also communicating to me the importance of success. Chao’s article illustrates how the parallels between Chinese values of education and work ethic can smooth the transition for their children into American society; however, there is a paradox at work here, too. My parents’ high expectations for me reflect Chinese cultural expectations and values, yet at the same time, in order to embrace those values, it is necessary that I temporarily discard part of my “Chinese-ness,” my native language, when functioning in the context of the university.
As far as maintaining a home language, my father has always encouraged me to speak SAE and made his pleasure apparent when I excelled in my English studies. My father’s beliefs mirror those of the teachers Lippi-Green references in Chapter 6, “The Educational System,” who believe that a child’s home language, when different from SAE, causes hurdles to his or her academic success. My case is somewhat different because my home language is not a variant of English, but the marginalization of languages other than SAE is the same. Rather than marginalize home languages, some schools offer Heritage Language programs, which aim to develop literacy skills in both languages, building on a student’s strengths rather than treating their home languages as a deficiency. I wonder how successful they can be, however, when the immigrant populations whose children would fill these programs already believe that their home languages are a deficiency. Lippi-Green writes, “When speakers of devalued or stigmatized varieties of English consent to the standard language ideology, they become complicit in its propagation against themselves, their own interests and identities” (p. 68). Although my father believed he was doing the best for his family when he overtly prized American English, there was an unsolvable conflict between his Chinese identity and his interest in procuring the best opportunities available for his family, a conflict that exists in all homes where SAE is not the primary language spoken.
As an Asian person, I had a complex reaction to the reading about Margaret Cho’s comedy. On the one hand, being a member of the group Cho is referencing gives me a unique perspective on her jokes, since in a way she is speaking for me, as a mouthpiece for the culture. On the other hand, as Chun points out (2009), critics have accused Cho of pandering to already-held racist stereotypes of her predominantly white audience. By performing “Mock Asian” in a public space, some worry that Cho may re-enforce, not challenge, these stereotypes. However, there is an immense difference between Cho mocking Asian stereotypes such as not being able to voice /r/, and someone like Shaquille O’Neal speaking Mock Asian and deflecting it as a harmless attempt at humor, rather than a re-voicing of a racial stereotype. The key difference is that Cho’s voice comes from within the community, from a place of experience and firsthand knowledge. I can accept and gently mock certain Asian stereotypes, such as the drive for success Asian parents instill in their children, since it is true to my own experience and that of many of my acquaintances, while at the same time condemning the voices of those outside the community who use Asian culture as the punchline to a stereotypical joke. However, maintaining this balance requires constant vigilance. Cho’s comedy is legitimized by her role as a stand-up comedian, as well as her membership within the community; it is not carte blanche for the perpetuation of stereotypes about Asians. In a way, this is a balancing act that all members of the non-dominant culture must perform all day, each day: a constant negotiation of identity, along with the cultural, social, political and economic factors that are impacted by what language one speaks.
As for the negotiation of my own identity within the context of the SFU campus, that continuing process is reflected in the work of Park (2011). Much like the Korean students referenced in that study, I also operated in mostly an isolated, homogenous social group when I first arrived at the university in order to experience a sense of belonging in a new environment. Unlike many of the students referenced in the study, college was not my only new environment; I was still adjusting to my surroundings in North America. As someone who immigrated during adolescence, I am not first nor second-generation; I fall into the generation “1.5.” The students in this study struggled with tensions between remaining in primarily Korean social groups and attempting to create cross-racial friendships. They attributed these tensions to home attitudes (Asians stay with other Asians), the fact that they came from environments that were dominantly Asian, and a desire to stay in their comfort zones. Many of these students have spoken primarily English from young ages, so for me, I would add that discomfort with spoken English also influenced my early desire to remain in homogenous social groupings with my Asian peers. As my expertise in English grows, so does my comfort in being with more diverse groups, again illustrating the connection between language and culture.
Language influences who we are, what we do, and how we are perceived by others. As I deepen my studies at university and my fluency with English grows, my very identity changes. My relationship with others changes, as they perceive me as more of a native speaker; because of the high status accorded to the kind of language I speak primarily, Standard English, those who value SAE as a marker of education—my father, my former high school academic counselor, potential employers—will change their valuation of my skills and abilities. However, my original Sound House will never be English, and this is part of my identity that is fixed and unchanging, even as so many other things are in flux as my relationship to language changes, which is both a challenge and a source of comfort.
Chao, Xia, (2013). Class habitus: Middle-class Chinese immigrant parents’ investment in their newcomer adolescents’ L2 acquisition and social integration. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 44(1), 58-74.
Chun, E. W. (2009). Ideologies of legitimate mockery: Margaret Cho’s revoicing of Mock Asian. In A. Reyes and A. Lo (eds.) Beyond Yellow English (pp. 261–287). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London & New York: Routledge.
Park, J. (2011). “I needed to get out of my Korean bubble”: An ethnographic account of Korean American collegians juggling diversity in a religious context. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 42(3), 193-212.