I reflect on my upbringing growing up in a multilingual environment, how different languages are used in such an environment, broken English, accents and social identity.
Hey! How’re you going? This is Alena and you’re listening to Along Came English.
So usually I do my recording at night when it’s quieter, but because of my schedule I had to record this during the day. So I apologise for any background noise during this episode.
For this episode, I thought I would reflect on growing up in a multilingual environment.
Now before I get into it, I’d like to give a shout-out to Pierre, our very first patron on Patreon. Thank you so much for your support, much appreciated. I know I did this last episode but I’m not sure how often I’m supposed to do the shout-out so… Hi Pierre!
Okay. Moving on.
My multilingual upbringing
Now I’m reflecting on my own upbringing but I think it’s very common that people grow up and interact in a bilingual or multilingual environment. I mean most people I know are bilingual or grew up in a multilingual environment for a variety of different reasons. In my case, Brunei is quite a multicultural place even though Malays are the majority, and the language, Malay, is the standard.
Historically, there is a colonisation aspect with regard to the English language in South East Asia, but let’s not get into the history and politics today.
Now if you’ve listened to the episode where I talk about my childhood, I grew up with a maid – this is very common and even socially normal in Brunei. So in the household that I grew up in, there was my family, and another couple, who were my maid and her husband.
Now “household” usually implies a family but it generally refers to the people who live together in the same house. So it’s not just a single family, it can be a “share house” as well where different people who may be unrelated come together to share a house.
I grew up in a multilingual environment. My parents spoke multiple Chinese dialects but they would converse in Cantonese. My maid and her husband spoke Filipino – or Tagalog. And the kids would talk to each other in English.
Apparently I could speak Tagalog as a child, but I don’t remember any of it.
Malay is the official language in Brunei, but there is also a fairly large Chinese community and most people in Brunei can speak English as well.
And although I have some ability to speak Mandarin, and can understand a little Cantonese, I have no confidence whatsoever in my ability to speak a second language fluently.
English is my native language by default and this is the language that I find easiest to communicate with. I understand a fair amount of nuance in the language – “nuance” means subtle distinction or subtle differences. This is the language I think in.
Using languages according to their function/situation
Now usually with people who can speak multiple languages, I would say it’s rare that they can speak all languages at the same level of proficiency. Often they are better at one over the rest.
And people who are learning a new language will often measure their proficiency against their native language.
However in my personal experience, or I guess my experience growing up, I’ve observed that people who can speak multiple languages use them according to their function or purpose, or situations.
So if I take my dad for example, my parents conversed in Cantonese and he would speak this to my other siblings – so Cantonese is used for family. My dad spoke Mandarin with his friends – so Mandarin is used for personal use. He spoke in English for business – I don’t think his English is great but he used it for professional purposes.
And if I think about, I guess this is the reason why my dad and I have language barriers because he doesn’t really speak English on a personal or family level?
Anyway, let’s take my sister as another example. She speaks English in her immediate family, to her husband and her children. But she speaks Cantonese with my parents, she speaks Hokkien, which is another Chinese dialect, with her father-in-law, and she speaks Malay with her maid because she comes from Indonesia.
Now there’s been a few times where I had to ask my sister to help me translate what I’m trying to say to my dad. I don’t think she has the same language barriers issues as my dad does, but she would probably find it weird to have a personal conversation in Malay with my mum.
I also have a friend who normally speaks English, but when she gets angry, she’ll start speaking Mandarin.
And my mom does something similar too. We’ll normally speak in English but when she wants to gossip behind someone’s back, she’ll start speaking to me in Mandarin.
And sometimes languages are segregated among friends. So friends in one group would speak English, and then a different language among a different group of friends. And I always belonged to the English group.
I’ve seen instances where friends have tried to speak a different language than they’re used to, and then they start to feel awkward and weird about it.
So yea, it’s interesting that languages can be split between different parts of one’s life.
Thinking in languages
And I’m also curious about what language they think in. I mean, does my dad think in English when he’s thinking about business? Does my friend swear in Mandarin in her head when she’s angry?
I mean obviously people have different ways of thinking in their head. Some hear words, some visualise, some conceptualise. Now I tend to visualise interactions or activities, but when I imagine myself talking, I will hear the words in English.
I have heard that for people who are deaf, they “see” the words as opposed to “hearing” them in their head.
Personally I don’t typically think in Mandarin unless there’s something I’m trying to translate and I don’t have the words for. It’s kind of like when I try to look for a file on my hard drive, and I try to… and I try to search with key words or go through different folders in my head. But it’s not always successful.
But even then, when I speak in Mandarin, I can speak without hesitation if it’s a very simple exchange. If I don’t have the words, that’s when I hesitate and have to think about what I say. Actually this is the same in English as well. But the difference is that I have significantly less vocabulary in Mandarin than I do in English.
In a way, this is kind of reflexive. And when I say “reflexive,” I mean something that is performed as a reflex without conscious thought, like an automatic response – I’m not talking about reflexive pronouns here.
This may be a result of being exposed to the language when I was very young – it’s easier for children to acquire a language. There are certain phrases or expressions that I can immediately express in Mandarin, which I believe I learnt in childhood.
And this is the same for listening, there’re certain expressions that I pick up amongst a flow of words that I don’t understand.
And this is often quite frustrating for me. As soon as there’s a conversation in Mandarin or Cantonese in the background within hearing range, my ears perk up for eavesdropping, and then I’ll hear snippets of expressions that I understand amongst a flow of words I don’t understand at all.
And I have no idea why this happens. Maybe my brain is telling me that I should go back to study Mandarin. I don’t know.
Although language acquisition is easy for children, this is different for adults because it is both a conscious and subconscious process.
It’s kind of like muscle memory. “Muscle memory” is the ability to move a part of your body without thinking about it, usually learned by repeating the movement many times. So there is a level of similarity, I think, between language and muscle memory. Through practice, it becomes ingrained in your brain – didn’t mind to rhyme there.
By practising regularly, over time, your understanding quickens, and your responses become faster. So it is possible to change native languages over time particularly if it becomes the one you predominantly use.
A multilingual environment has some interesting consequences – in particular a blended language or “broken English.” And this is also called “pidgin” or “creole” in other parts of the world.
There are different types of broken English, and some even have their own names. In Brunei or Malaysia, it’s just referred to as “broken English.” In Singapore, it’s called “Singlish.” In Japan, it’s called “Engrish.” In Hong Kong, it’s called “Chinglish.” And there is actually a Wikipedia page for a list of English-based pidgins.
Broken English is a modified blend of different local languages.
While I don’t speak Cantonese with my family, I do however speak Broken English with them. For me it’s more like a different accent, because I still speak English, just differently. I speak faster, I add “la’s” and “bah’s. I adopt a different sentence structure. I drop articles. It’s like a grammatically incorrect version of English.
I started going to an international school from a young age, so I adopted a more “western” accent and way of talking. And when I was younger, I would subconsciously start talking broken English when I interacted with people who spoke this way. Now I tend to only do it when I speak with my immediately family. And what you’re hearing now is my default way of talking.
Apart from broken English, I have noticed there are times when people will speak a language and then throw in snippets of a different language.
I remember when I was learning Japanese for a year, I would speak English and then occasionally throw in simple Japanese words. I guess this could be considered broken English but it’s not really a local language. It’s more a consequence or result of my own situation.
I also had a Polish colleague who experienced something similar. She only learnt English after moving to Australia. And she told me that when she spoke Polish after that (after learning English) she would often throw in English phrases, so it became a blend of Polish and English.
Social identity & broken English
There is also an aspect of social identity that is associated with broken English. Just like languages, it can be cultural and can reflect certain cultural values if you speak or sound a certain way.
So for example, on the Wikipedia page for Broken English, the younger generation of the Maori in New Zealand adopted Broken English as a way of asserting their own sense of cultural identity even though they are more proficient in English than the previous generation.
As for me, sounding the way that I do, I’m not considered local in South East Asia even though I grew up there.
I mean I left Brunei a long time ago, so this is not really a regrettable situation. And I think it’s become quite common for people to move overseas these days, so it’s not surprising anymore when others find out that I’m actually Malaysian.
And I have come to realise fairly recently, in some places a western accent is associated with a level of awe and maybe even prestige.
When I taught briefly in Malaysia, students were quite direct about not wanting a teacher with a local accent. Which is quite unfortunate I think because, you know, accents don’t determine if a teacher is good or not.
And I’ve also come across academic journals where western accents are often desirable in teachers and non-western accents are often looked down on.
Faking a western accent
There is a phenomenon where people who normally speak broken English would try to adopt a fake western accent even though they have never spent time overseas or they don’t have friends or family who are from overseas. Obviously it comes across as pretentious but it happens.
There’s a video created by a Malaysian Youtube channel called TheMingThing that really captures this well. The video is called “Your Accent Come From Where.” As you can probably tell, that… that sentence structure is Broken English.
There is a scene where the girl, who has been speaking in a really bad western accent, picks up her phone and starts talking to her mom in broken English. And that’s pretty much what happens to me when I speak to my family. I do that.
Anyway, a fake accent is something that is often made fun, especially if they sound unnatural.
On the other hand, accent acquisition is actually quite common. This happens when you unconsciously micmic the sounds around you particularly if you’ve moved to a different environment or spend time with people with different accents. So your accent changes quite naturally.
I would say my accent is a blend of all my language influences – my family, my teachers, my education, the countries I’ve lived in, the friends and colleagues I’ve spent time with.
I’ve also heard instances of people who adopt the accent of the person they are interacting with almost immediately. I remember I was on a plane once and there was a conversation going on in the row behind me – I think it was an Australian girl and two Irish guys. And throughout the conversation, she started picking up Irish pronunciations and was apologising for it.
I guess anyone who goes away for a few days and then comes back with a different accent is going to get raised eyebrows for a while until their accent returns to normal again.
“Raised eyebrows” is a facial expression to express surprise or mild disapproval. You know, like the emoji. 🤨
Language interference and transfer
Now, I don’t know if you’ve heard of language interference or language transfer. I’m sure if you’re bilingual or multilingual, you’ve probably noticed that one language that you speak is affected by another language that you speak. This can be with sentence structures, certain pronunciations, articles, conjugations etc.
And broken English is pretty much a result of this – it’s basically a mash-up of different local languages with different language features into one.
“Mash-up” is an informal way of saying a mixture or combination of two or more things.
A lot of the sentence structures that I use when I speak Broken English is more similar to Chinese than English.
There are positive and negative transfers. Of course positive transfers tend to be overlooked because people are more conscious of their mistakes right? But if you are learning a language that is similar to something you’re already fluent in, learning is significantly easier than another language that’s completely different. So for example, French is quite similar to English, but Chinese and English are completely different.
I had a student whose native language was French and he would often anglicise French words because there are a lot of similarities between English and French.
“Anglicise” is a verb that means to make or become English.
Yea, and he would take French words and assume that they would be the same or similar in English. It was a shortcut, but it didn’t always work. I would google some of these words because I thought there might be a definition that I hadn’t heard of or something, and then I would get results… search results in French. It was kinda funny.
I think for most people who grow up in bilingual or multilingual environments will often adopt the language that is most common in the country or the area they live in as their native tongue. And this is often the case for immigrant families who move to English-speaking countries, the children often become native English speakers but not as fluent or proficient in their family’s language.
I’ve met numerous people here in Australia who were born here to immigrant parents or moved here at a very young age. And more often than not, they will speak English as their first language and their parents’ language as their second. And they’ll speak English to others in the same generation, their siblings or cousins who may have moved over as well. And they will only speak their family’s language when they have to, usually to their parents or grandparents.
Now in my case, having gone to an English-speaking school from a young age has definitely been a factor in making English my language of preference.
In my mum’s case, her family’s mother tongue is Hakka, but the area she grew up in spoke Hokkien, so she had to learn a different dialect growing up. But to be honest, I’m not completely sure what she considers as her native tongue. We’ve never really talked about it.
Communication in Jane the Virgin
Well, an interesting example of a multilingual environment is a TV series on Netflix called Jane the Virgin. It’s a romantic comedy drama. I’ve watched one or two episodes but I think it’s a bit soapy for me.
“Soapy” is an informal adjective to say that it’s characteristic of a soap opera. “Soap opera” is a television drama series about the daily lives and problems of people who are often over-the-top and very dramatic.
So Jane the Virgin is like a soap opera. It’s not quite my cup of tea, but it is very popular and I know a lot of people who enjoy it.
Anyway, it features a latino or latina family. Jane is the protagonist – “protagonist” means the leading character – and then there’s her mother and grandmother.
From a language perspective, it’s interesting to observe their interactions because the grandmother only speaks Spanish, and Jane will only speak English to her grandmother. So they have this bilingual conversation and are capable of understanding each other but they don’t speak the other person’s language.
I mean, it’s TV right so how realistic is this?
Actually I’ve observed this at work. I had an ex-colleague whose parents came from the Philippines, but she only spoke English even though she understood Filipino. So whenever a… another colleague from the Philippines would speak to her in Filipino, she would respond in English. And apparently she did this at home as well.
Anyway, I think I’ll finish here.
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