Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bilingualism-Creation of Private Bubble in Public Space

by Elizabeth Baik

"Whose Spanish? The tension between linguistic correctness and cultural identity" by Bonnie Urcuioli highlights the controversy over bilingualism regarding linguistic correctness. Indeed, bilingual individuals themselves oftentimes believe that their linguistic proficiency and depth in multiple languages are limited as they are somehow distributed among languages, rather than focused on a single language. Personally, it is as if one has a quantifiable ability and energy to speak in any given language, hence when the energy is funneled into speaking in one language, the ability to speak the other language decreases. This is experienced particularly after an extended period of time immersed in a culture or community that speaks either English or Korean, in which case proficiency in the other language is affected, and takes some time to  switch gears and recover the previously attained comfort level and fluency. From personal experience, as a result, there seems to be some truth in the notion that acquiring multiple languages may interfere with fully learning any of the languages. However, the concept of 'correctness' is utterly erroneous. Urcuioli presents the common phenomenon in which bilinguals find themselves rather reluctant to admit their 'linguistic identity,' which "becomes a problem of symbolic capital for students in terms of personal presentation, of being taken seriously." In other words, as the majority of human beings tend to, bilingual students prefer to avoid preconceived notions, stereotyping, representation, especially if they are faulty, based on the culture they come from and the languages they grew up in, hence speak. Urcuioli argues that inherited bilingualism, unlike learned bilingualism via academic study, brings about such judgement, for better or for worse. Inherited bilingualism has markedness because it hints towards culture, which it isn't necessarily directly related to.
People antagonistic to the notion of inherited bilingualism tend to view it as made up of wrong linguistic things taking the place of right linguistic things. Similarly they tend to view the accompanying family culture as made up of wrong things getting in the way of right things. Bilingualism acquired in school is, by contrast, unproblematic, since it is perceived as correct and uncomplicated by culture.

This in turn highlights language correctness, norms, and standards as endorsed in school and academia. According to Urcuioli, such English correctness is linked to
a strong moral charge: there is a widely accepted belief that because "good" English is assumed to be naturally available, people living in the U.S, have no excuse for not acquiring it. They should acquire it, especially since acquiring it facilitates the "American Dream" of class mobility, which is also considered a moral imperative for citizens or potential citizens, i.e. immigrants.
This focus on the inherited vs learned bilingualism and consideration of cultural interference in language acquisition contrast with what I gleaned from Shankar's reading. At least with regards a personal reflection of the negative and positive aspects of bilingualism, Shankar definitely underlined the benefits of bilingualism, namely privacy. 

Before jumping into contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism, it is helpful to note the concept FOB. "Speaking like a Model Minority: "FOB Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi Teens in Silicon Valley" by Shalini Shankar carefully reflects on subtle social dynamics and activities among Desi (South Asian American) teenagers in a Silicon Valley high school. Shankar claims that such "everyday performances of teenage linguistic style interact with broader meanings of class, race, and gender" (p268). A huge part of her observation is based on a created marginalized identity labeled "FOB" or "Fresh off the Boat," a non-model subcategory of the 'model minority.'
In their multiracial, multiethnic school environment, teens who are called FOBs by popular teens for their style of speaking, dressing, and socializing are not actually brand new arrivals to the Untied States. Rather, FOB is a term that upper middle-class, popular Desi teens use to label second- and third- generation middle-class teens whose parents are nonskilled workers. 270
Shankar mentions how popular teens would identify and differentiate themselves from the so-called FOBs to set themselves apart from who they consider 'nonnormative' and identify themselves as fully adapted into American culture. As a side note, these popular teens use various speech patterns and vernacular, as discussed in previous weeks, to build a reputation and identity. "English is a valued tool in identity-making practices for Desi teens, and they tend to use several different kinds of English" (Shankar, 271)

Now that the concept of FOB is unpacked, so how do these FOBs have an advantage that Urcuioli does not mention by being bilinguals? By speaking a language that most of those around them do not, they have as much privacy as they want however public the location they are in. Within an area as public as a high school building, students "territorialize the school campus during lunch and break and demarcate it into proprietary spaces that blur public and private distinctions" (Shankar, 272). This privatization occurs with various methods of inclusion and exclusion, but bilinguals are especially effective with their use of another language. A clip from the Simpsons below helps illustrate this point.

The clip is taken out of context, but what may be taken away from this scene is that Indian language just sounds like noise to the untrained ears. (The Simpsons seems to make some reference to the pitch and speed of the Indian language, and surely it is significant, but it is rather irrelevant to the discussion at hand.) To English-only speakers, Indians is not understandable, giving Indian speakers or bilinguals the ability to speak without being self-conscious or aware of listeners. They have the ability to filter who can listen and understand what they are saying. 

Shankar provides an example to such an occurrence:
Although they can be somewhat more lax at school, girls rarely consider social time at school to occur in a private space. Even here, they are concerned about maintaining their reputation and avoiding school disciplinary measures, both things that could harm their familial and community standing. By contrast Sikh Punjabi boys are subject to fewer social rules and tend to regard the social space of school as far more private. Treating their places in the school campus as a private space for jokes, humor, gossip, and confrontation, they criticize or choose to ignore school rules when they impeded on their language styles. 276
Shankar describes a situation in which Simran, a female student, greets Ms. Marie Subal, while the male students completely ignore her. This event is followed by KB, one of the male students, insulting Ms. Marie Subal in his native language. He mentions her name, but says Marie in a South Asian pronounciation or "Desi Accented English," DAE. His peers confirm and add on to KB's comment, creating a group activity. "In this interaction, only Simran interacted with Ms. Subal, albeit in a brief way. By commenting about Ms. Subal in Punjabi and using DAE to pronounce her name, the boys were able to claim a private moment in an encounter that girls and faculty would regard as decidedly public" (Shankar, 281).

Many bilinguals may agree or disagree on various advantages and disadvantages they have by being able to speak more than one language. It is true that sometimes one feels limited when they are put in a situation in which they can only speak one language, because their proficiency and comfort in a single language is limited. At the same time, the ability to speak another language gives them privacy in public. Though the inherited vs academic bilingualism may continue to be contested, it is absolutely true that bilingualism is valued at least on the individual level.

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