Not quite bilingual

Isabella Schreiber/Staff

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Like about a quarter of Americans, I classify as bilingual — in fact, because my parents are first-generation immigrants, I was taught Mandarin before I learned any English. But as is the case with many second-generation students, 12 years of English-centric education has made me fluent in one language at the expense of the other. In other words, as time has passed, I’ve lost touch with my Mandarin-speaking background.

This usually hasn’t been too much of a problem: My parents and I communicate smoothly via a train wreck “Chinglish” hybrid, and I know enough to stumble my way through a 10-minute call with relatives. My friends and I regularly joke about how badly we botch our families’ native languages, but life goes on. As a copy editor, however, I know that I’m supposed to pride myself on my lingual proficiency. So my clumsy Mandarin, in actuality, is one of my biggest insecurities.

I have a copy complex: Using a language I don’t have complete control over puts me in a state of legitimate distress. It leaves no room for my regularly scheduled pretentiousness, instead flipping my status so that I’m the one being corrected. Say I open up WeChat and comment on an article about Google. My grandpa points out that instead of “Google” (gǔgē), I’ve entered the characters for “skeleton” (gǔgé). Not only have I just been obliterated by an 80-year-old man, but I’ve also reminded my extended family that I’m the only nonfluent member of the group chat. I delete the chat history. I delete WeChat. I tell myself I’ll never write Chinese again without double-checking, but a week later, I re-download the app and send my family the word “meatball” instead of “wrist.” My reputation and self-worth: gone.

Maybe because I’m a competitive asshole, falling so far behind everyone in a field as second-nature as language makes me indescribably uncomfortable. It’s not just the blow to my ego; it’s the curbing of the expressive freedom that I usually take for granted. To a two-time uncontested middle school spelling bee champion (my peak), suddenly not knowing how to write “sneeze” feels like a slap in the face. That might be why I dropped French for journalism in high school — my mental copy editor tells me that it’s pointless and embarrassing to keep learning a language if I’m not already good at it, to speak it if I haven’t mastered it, to write it if I haven’t memorized its stylebook.

This insecurity anchors me in my English comfort zone, distancing me progressively further from my family’s native language. In the world’s saddest positive feedback loop, the worse I get at Mandarin, the less inclined I am to relearn it.

Lately, I’ve been telling myself that the only real solution to this complex is to own up to my ineptitude. My fluency in English has no correlation with my natural skill in any other language. Just as English parts of speech as basic as articles are absent in Chinese, many intricacies of Chinese — for example, its defined inflections, phono-semantic compounds and endless backlog of four-character idioms — lack English counterparts, meaning that I’ll have to work as hard as anyone else to achieve any level of Mandarin proficiency.

So catch me at your local cafe, marking up an integrated Chinese textbook when I think no one is watching. I won’t let this mindset get the best of me.

Contact Angela Dong at [email protected]