Two Arlingtonian columnists discuss their experiences growing up between languages and cultures

“It’s so much more than just words.”

by Dylan Carlson Sirvent, ’19

was 9 when I first started learning English. That was when my mom and I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah from my hometown León, Guanajuato in Mexico for her sabbatical. It was a struggle at first but as the months passed, English started becoming easier and easier for me. But alas, my mom and I moved back to my hometown and I started forgetting my English. Two years passed, and at age 11 my mom and I returned to the United States, this time to Columbus, Ohio. Everyone told me that I was young enough that I would relearn all my English and have no accent. My dad, who is American, was sure of it. Yet that never happened. My accent at 11 was many times worse what it was at 9. It has always set me apart. At school, as soon as I opened my mouth someone would ask me about my accent. When I volunteered for a few years at COSI, customers made a habit of pointing out the fact I had an accent. It follows me everywhere.

León, Mexico. Photo courtesy Lin Mei on Wikimedia Commons.

With English, I don’t consider myself fully fluent. When I speak I make conscious efforts to pronounce things correctly. I have to catch myself from pronouncing Ys like Js, or rolling my Rs, or messing up words like “sheet” and “beach.” (My mom and I both avoid saying those words if we can.) When I speak in English, it feels like I can’t fully be myself. But as soon as I start speaking in Spanish, words can flow from me without a second thought.

When I speak in Spanish, I feel like I can be my true and full self. And that’s the strange thing about language: it’s not just about the words. There’s a much deeper connection. Spanish is a part of me, of who I am. English is just a second language. Recently over spring break, I was in Miami talking to an old family friend from Puerto Rico. At first, to be respectful to the non-Spanish speakers around us, we spoke in English. But once we got deeper into our conversation, we started speaking in Spanish and the way we changed was amazing. The whole time he had been speaking very formally and somewhat stilted, but as soon as he started speaking in Spanish, he leaned back in his chair and came alive. As for me, a huge smile came across my face and I could feel like myself. I relaxed, became goofier and my laugh became many times louder.

It’s strange and I don’t know how to explain it, but when I speak in English it feels like there’s a wall between me and those with whom I want to communicate. It’s built up by language. What I say doesn’t come out like I want it to come out and I’m constantly trying to hold back my accent which fully reveals itself whenever I get nervous or am super tired. So when I say that I don’t consider myself fully fluent in English, that’s what I mean. Words can’t just flow, and instead I encounter that language barrier between me and those around me.

Now, I’m still able to communicate almost everything I want to say in English, but I lack that deeper connection that connects me to language on a deeper, human level. Spanish is my mother tongue. It is the language I grew up speaking. It is the language in which I said my first word. (It was “agua,” which means water.) It is the language in which I first talked to my parents, the language in which I think, the language in which I curse and dream. So when you think about language, think of that deeper connection. Because it’s so much more than just words.

“I’ve worked on separating language and culture in my mind.”

by Sophie Yang, ’19

Shangyu, China. Photo by Sophie Yang.

Before two summers ago, I hadn’t been to China in seven years. My memories of the cities—even my technical hometown and my grandparents’ house—had become a complete blur. Having had almost no concept of social consciousness as a nine-year-old on my last visit, I remember the trip as a series of discoveries. My first discovery was that I should never again live without green bean popsicles. My second was that in a line entering an airplane, without my saying a word, Chinese flight attendants would speak Mandarin to my dad and English to me. From facial expressions and gestures, the natives in China can easily recognize Asian-Americans.

After years of family friends praising my “good Mandarin accent”—something completely owed to spending my first four years in China—I thought that if I stuck to basic conversation and didn’t give away my limited vocabulary, I could blend in for a few minutes, and if I didn’t speak at all, no one would single me out. This wasn’t true, and I don’t think it ever will be—the culture differences are too great. This realization came to me at the time as an ‘Oh, of course.’

But if the realization had come before others—say, when I was nine—I would’ve had more trouble accepting it. For the longest time, I equated culture with language. I latched onto being Chinese since I initially had trouble making American friends, and I latched onto being a Mandarin speaker after my parents told me to be proud of being bilingual after a preschool classmate said I was weird for being bad at English. In my mind, being Chinese, speaking Mandarin, and speaking Mandarin without an accent were the same.

So when in middle school I found I still couldn’t understand Lunar New Year skits or fully communicate with Mandarin speakers my age, I began to feel as if I had let my culture slip away. I didn’t fit in well enough at school to be American, I couldn’t speak Mandarin well enough to be Chinese, and Asian-American representation was so sparse that I didn’t believe a real community existed beyond isolated pockets of family friends. At the time, I had become friends with two Chinese exchange students. Alice, one of the exchange students, once asked me if I spoke in English differently with her compared to with my America-born friends. I said I didn’t, and she said she definitely spoke Mandarin to me differently than her friends in China. She never explained exactly how, but I saw the cultural divide that had always separated us materialize—not opaque, but there. This was probably the moment when I stopped considering myself any shade of native Chinese. Doing so felt and feels inaccurate and naive. I still regret that it came so late.

Since then, I’ve worked on separating language and culture in my mind. The two are of course deeply connected, but the thing is that for the children of immigrants like myself, how much native language and culture we pick up in childhood is a function of dozens of factors, many out of our control. How many traditions were celebrated at home? Did our environment growing up encourage us to reject or embrace our parents’ language? My accepting this unequal passing on of culture and language—and seeing that it’s not only possible, but common for second-generation immigrants to approach their parents’ language and culture with fresh eyes later in life—has led me to accept my Mandarin ability. I still want to speak the language a little better than I do now; I want to become halfway fluent in reading and writing and pick out a few more folk stories than I currently can. But for the time being, I’m content to move slowly. I’m content to practice Mandarin characters with my younger sister on odd weekends, turn off subtitles on the occasional Chinese drama and prepare a journal for my next trip to China this summer. This time, it isn’t out of some plan to ‘fit in’ as the native that I’m not. It’s so that I can connect with my mom and my grandparents just a little better. It’s so that decades from now, when I’ve grown apart from my extended family and no longer have a reason to visit China, my ties to the place where I was born don’t fade away.