The One Lie I Always Tell

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Though I consider myself a fairly honest person, there is one lie I always tell.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

Many official documents demand the completion of a “native language” field. And, despite the fact that I was born in a Chinese-speaking environment, I always respond that my native language is English.

Let me tell you why.


I am what some sociologists call a 1.5 generation immigrant, indicating a person who immigrated to a foreign country before their early teens. In my case, I was born and raised in China for the first six years of my life; then, right before primary school, I immigrated to the United States with my parents.

Me in the '90s, when I was still fluent in Chinese and just learning to be 'Murican.

Me in the ’90s, when I was just learning to be ‘Murican.

I had come to the US knowing how to speak Chinese, but I had not learned how to read or write. Over the years, my command of Chinese further weakened as my parents and I communicated with each other in a patchwork of English and basic Chinese.

By third grade, I was taking out seven books a week – in English – from the local library. My fluency in English had far surpassed my previous knowledge of Chinese.

When I finally reached the age of filling out paperwork independently (a beautiful milestone in a young woman’s life), I regarded the “native language” field with confusion. Possibly, the following questions ran through my head, as they still do each time I see the field.

  • What does “native” mean? That means related to birth, right?
  • Does Chinese count as my native language if I don’t speak it well and don’t know how to read it or write in it? 
  • If I do say Chinese is my native language, will they try to contact me in Chinese?
  • If so, why don’t they use another term?

As it turns out, there isn’t a tidy phrase to describe a person’s language of greatest fluency. Both “native language” and “mother tongue” presume fluency in the language of birth — a sometimes false presumption.

Linguists deploy a different but still confusing term. “L1” might refer to one’s chronologically first language or one’s language of greatest fluency.

What do I write in this little white box?

What do I write in this little white box?

I have to admit, linguistic imprecision is one of my major pet peeves. It boggles my mind that with the number of immigrants in the US, we still don’t have the words to distinguish between a native language and the language of greatest fluency.

Some might see this distinction as inconsequential, but I don’t.

If I had answered honestly in my application to grad school that my native language is Chinese, I would have been required to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language), most often required of international students applying to study in the US.

The application would not have provided an area to qualify my answer, for instance, with an explanation that I am no longer fluent in my native language or have taught English professionally for years.

As a result, I did what I always do when confronted with the field.

I lied.


I’m going to end here with a relevant snippet from the first Pokémon movie. In that great classic, the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo says, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

I would make a similar argument in the case of one’s native language relative to one’s language of fluency. While the two are usually the same, sometimes they’re not.

So let’s start asking the right questions.

At least, let’s reform our forms.

So glad that the '90s - and Pokémon! - are back.

So glad that the ’90s – and Pokémon! – are back.



5 thoughts on “The One Lie I Always Tell

  1. Yeah, that’s like my husband. Even though he was born in the U.S., he didn’t speak English until kindergarten. Now he understands Cantonese, but doesn’t speak it. No way he’d ever say his native language was Cantonese, either.

    “Primary Language” would be a better option.

    • There are a lot of people in the same boat! And there is a lot of confusion out there, just google “what is my native language.” I agree that “primary language” would be a better term. I could also see “preferred language” working.

  2. Wow, as a linguistics major I’m shocked that this question has never crossed my mind! I remember however in my Bilingualism class we heard and read about many stories of children whose primary language was lost upon arrival to the United States. We concluded that if the new language was learned before adolescence and one began to think in that new language then it could still be considered an L1. We didn’t get too into it.

    I used to ask myself the same question. I grew up with the knowledge of two languages, but because of my environment English conquered by very very weak Jamaican Patios. So if Jamaican Patios was on the list of L1s that I could choose, could I choose it? I would like to but I wouldn’t because a Jamaican would see my application and then start speaking to me expecting me to reply, but I would only be able to respond in English…

    Do you ever feel like you lost that part of your identity in some way since you don’t feel comfortable in that language? I tell people I’m Jamaican, BUT … and I always have to explain…

    • I always say I’m Chinese-American which seems to get the point across. The question about losing a part of my identity is an interesting one. I don’t really feel that way since I still retain some knowledge of Chinese language and culture. Also, the time and effort I would have expended on mastering/re-mastering the language, I devoted instead to writing stories, making art, even learning French! Those are all things which made me who I am today and if I had thrown myself into Chinese I would have lost out on other parts of my current identity 🙂

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