Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language

Guanglun Michael Mu’s book Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language is out this month and it examines the issues faced by Chinese Australian heritage language learners. In this post Michael introduces the key themes of his book.

Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language“I am Australian but I look Chinese. I look Chinese but I can’t speak Chinese.” This is the predicament of my Chinese Australian friend, and probably that of many other Chinese Australians, Chinese Americans, Chinese Canadians, or overseas Chinese in general. Such a predicament also epitomises the tensions around race, culture, and language in the diasporic context. In response to this predicament, I wrote the book Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language: An Australian Perspective.

The book grapples with the complex entanglement of identity construction, language choice, cultural heritage, and social orders. Specifically, the book investigates how Chinese Australians negotiate their Chineseness and capitalise on resources through learning Chinese as a heritage language in Australia and beyond. Though the book is concerned with Chinese Australians, knowledge built and lessons learned can provide insight into other multicultural settings where people of Chinese descent are becoming increasingly prominent in representing the cultural and linguistic diversity of the society, and more recently, in contributing to the economic dynamics of the society. In addition, the focus on the potholes and distractions as well as the benefits and gains of heritage language learning is not restricted to Chinese diaspora, but relevant to ethnic minority individuals and communities elsewhere.

The book wades into the sociological problem of how durable and transposable dispositions of Chineseness unconsciously generates practices of Chinese heritage language learning, that is, how previous state, cultural history, and ancestral root are inscribed in the body and mind, largely taken for granted at present, and potentially projected into the future. However, the book does not align with the deterministic view because it also takes close account of how Chinese heritage language learning constantly shapes and reshapes Chineseness. The book further deviates itself from the thesis of determinism by examining how Chinese Australians strategically count on material and symbolic resources with the expectation of reproducing these resources in their identical or expanded forms.

The book stresses that the embodiment of Chineseness, the capture of resources, and the learning of Chinese heritage language are intertwined and mutually constitutive elements, while the lack of any element may impede the growth of the other two. Moreover, the book is emphatic about the fact that Chineseness, resources, and heritage language do not act and interact in a vacuum. Instead, they respond to each other in diverse social spaces. Power relations and social structures within domestic milieu, school settings, work places, community domains, and larger cultural and geographic zones all come to inform the embodiment of Chineseness, the investment of resources, and the learning of Chinese heritage language.

I hope that the book is of interest to a wide readership. I invite overseas Chinese, postgraduate research students, teachers of Chinese as a foreign/second/additional language, scholars of Chinese cultural studies, sociologists of education and language, as well as heritage language researchers to read this volume and provide constructive comments to this work. By publication of this book, I would like to encourage colleagues in the field to push the limits and break the boundaries, and to rethink unity of diversities and togetherness of differences.

For more information about this book please see our website.

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