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.
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.
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.
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’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.