What Does It Mean To “Be Chinese”?

This month we published Language, Culture and Identity in Two Chinese Community Schools by Sara Ganassin. In this post the author talks about the book’s discussion of identity in contexts of migration. 

The past decade has seen a growing international interest in China, Chinese language education, ‘Chinese culture’ and Chinese communities including Chinese migrants. At the same time, often media attention has contributed to an enforcement of stereotypical constructions of a collective Chinese identity by depicting Chinese people, including Chinese migrants, in particular ways: successful, hard-working, but also conservative, unwilling to integrate and often ‘invisible’ in their new countries.

This book offers a snapshot of Chinese migrant experiences in Britain. It is important to acknowledge that ‘Chineseness’ is not necessarily related to an affiliation with a particular political entity, but it is rather related to the complex nature of the ‘Chinese world’ including its multinational and multicultural dimensions.

Chinese homework from a child at one of the schools in the book

This book is located in the context of Chinese community schools in the UK. These are educational and social spaces where migrants nurture their language, cultures and identities and transmit them to the younger generations. The question ‘is there more than one way of being Chinese?’ is addressed from the perspectives of children, parents and teachers attending two Mandarin schools. These perspectives include both those from ‘new’ migrants from Mainland China and those from more ‘traditional’ Cantonese, Hakka, and Hokkien speaking communities.

The book explores how ‘being Chinese’ covers a complex range of political, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural positions and identities that play out in the context of language community education. With their focus on non-dominant languages and ‘cultures’ community schools represent a space for adults and children to explore who they are and what ‘being Chinese’ means to them.

Postcards at the Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing

The topic of ‘Chinese’ and, more broadly, ‘migrant’ identity is central in the book. However, the book is not just about ‘being Chinese’. Identity is a crucial and controversial topic in any context of migration and displacement. Social-constructionism enables us to see identity as a process constructed through the relationships that we establish with the world around us. Our sense of who we are, especially but not exclusively as migrants, is shaped by our sense of identification with particular communities, but also by our self-understanding of our own unique personal journeys and family histories.

Furthermore, identification and affiliation with certain groups — e.g. ‘being native speakers of a certain language’, ‘being citizens of a certain country’ — afford us privileges and opportunities others might not have and, at the same time, shape how we see ourselves and the world. A key message in this book concerns the importance of acknowledging how different life trajectories are a source of enrichment rather than obstacles as people move, settle in new contexts and negotiate who they are in relation to the ‘other’.

I hope that readers — those who study and have an interest in intercultural and migrant education, teachers and learners of Chinese or any other community language — may engage with the narratives reported in this book and enhance their understanding of their own personal and professional stories in intercultural spaces.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language by Guanglun Michael Mu.

New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning

This month we published New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning edited by Liming Yu and Terence Odlin. Here, Terence tells us a bit more about language transfer and the issues examined by the book.

New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language LearningLanguage transfer research looks at the influence of one language upon another. When learners try to acquire a new language, the knowledge they already have (as in the knowledge of their native language) can influence what they produce or understand inside or outside the classroom. Consequently, experienced language teachers often seek to understand better how transfer works and what they may do to deal with the reality of such influence.

Our volume brings together several innovative studies that shed light on transfer or, as it is also known, cross-linguistic influence. The studies brought together in the book consider such influence in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation as well as topics such as comprehension and social setting in relation to transfer.

Researchers as well as teachers will find a wealth of new insights on several topics including ones that have long been discussed. For example, the introductory chapter shows that the term transfer itself has had a long history in linguistics and was not introduced, as some conventional wisdom would have it, in the 1950s. The same chapter also provides new insights about the issue of predictions of transfer, offering a more optimistic outlook on the issue than is often found in other discussions.

The volume also presents several detailed analyses of transfer involving language contact in China, with most of these studies focusing on the influence of Mandarin on the acquisition of English. However, there is also one study involving the converse type of influence, that is, of L1 English on L2 Chinese. ESL or EFL teachers who are curious about, for example, the prepositional choices made by Chinese students will find an empirical analysis of particular cases, while another chapter investigates why ill-formed sentences such as “The Eiffel Tower sees easily from this window often seem acceptable to Chinese students.

Along with the empirical studies are ones looking at the broader picture, as in Chapter 2 by Scott Jarvis, which reviews (among other topics) some pioneering work using methods such as eye-tracking technology that suggest new insights about cross-linguistic influence. Considering the broader picture from a different perspective, Chapter 12 by Chuming Wang emphasizes the importance of the contexts in which learning occurs. The diverse perspectives of the volume are considered globally in the final chapter (by Terence Odlin), which discusses questions such as whether some linguistic-processing is language-specific. Although it may seem self-evident that people inevitably “think” in English, in Chinese, in Arabic, or in some other language, the notion of language-specific cognitive processes has proven controversial. What is clear, however, is that language transfer has a special relevance to the controversy and the new volume offers much to show that relevance.

Terence Odlin, Ohio State University

If you would like any further information about this book please see our website or contact Terence at the address above.