Rhonda Chung is a Ph.D. student in Education at Concordia University in Montreal and one of BILD’s newest members. Her research interests are in phonology and focusing on how learners perceive and process different dialects and accents of L2 French, in particular those novel to them. Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Rhonda moved to Montreal in 2006 in a bid to learn our country’s other official language: French. What started out as linguistic curiosity soon became a journey into understanding second language acquisition.
If life is but a stage, then I was handed all the masks and was continually told to play my part.
My great-grandfather was born in the late 1800s in Hong Kong, which was under British colonial rule. He was Anglophone–I wonder how many times he was asked, “But where are you REALLY from?”
In second language acquisition research, the spread of English via colonialism is often talked about only in terms of its after-effects: the establishment of the inner and outer circles of English (Kachru, 1985). My family has lived and travelled in both circles, and I am here to tell some tales about running around in these circles.
I was born in Toronto, Ontario. In grade 4, there was a school-wide test administered for the gifted program where the highest achievers were called for personal interviews with child psychologists. The white, middle-aged man that I sat across from smiled and asked me general questions, like “How many years pass before a leap year?” I remember being excited about that one because I had just asked my parents that very thing the night before. About that, he asked, what language were you guys speaking?
Three to four weeks later, my psychological assessment was mailed to my parents. My Dad blurted aloud, “You said we speak Creole?!”
I looked at him and said, “What’s Creole, Dad?”
My father’s face grew quiet and he folded the paper over.
That was the first time; but not the most memorable. It happened during my second interview using my newly minted TESL certificate.
The interviewer and I had a fabulous conversation about the eccentricities of the English language, and how after a day of teaching ESL to kids it made her wistful for those early days of when she was a mom taking care of her youngins. Did I have any children? I really should, she said with a stern but friendly smile. It’s one of the best human experiences there is, she said as she prepared my employment papers. I was starting to feel at ease and that quietly slipped into happiness because I was proud of myself. I had secured a job! We shook on it. As I got up, she said,
“Welcome aboard, Miss Chung. Chung. That’s funny! It’s a pity you didn’t keep up your Mandarin.”
They speak Cantonese in Hong Kong.
No Chung has spoken this language for at least 96 years–that’s how old my monolingual English grandfather is.
This particular sketch in the comedy of my life, must have held some kind of essential truth for people, as it was the most popular masked performance that I would have to play: The Dance of the Girl Who Couldn’t Possibly be a Real Anglophone.
I would like to thank the Academy–the English Colonial Academy–for making this recurring skit possible.
And then French entered my life.
Ahhh, the age-old battle between the French and the English. And unbeknownst to me, I would be the battleground where Montcalm and Wolfe would reanimate to have their last stand.
I had booked tickets leaving Toronto to arrive in Montreal about a hundred times before I actually moved here. Maybe that’s why I made the mistake. When I got to the Gare Centrale, I handed my ticket to the train agent and he scrunched up his face. Wrong city, he said flatly.
Damn it, he was right. I rolled my suitcase over to the Via Rail ticket agent, where the line was uncharacteristically free.
J’ai expliqué que j’avais fait une erreur en réservant mon billet.
T’sé même pas où tu restes?, m’a-t-elle réprimandé.
Je sais, je sais, madame! Je suis tellement désolée. Est-ce que ça serait possible d’avoir un nouveau billet?
T’es nouvelle icitte? T’a pas lu les règles sur ton billet?
J’avais honte de mon erreur. Ça me coûterait vraiment cher de racheter un nouveau billet maintenant.
Exaspérée, j’ai dit, “Is there any way you can help me? I feel so stupid!”
Her eyes flashed and her head snapped back ever so slightly. As we continued our discussion in English, she grew more jovial. A vacant seat miraculously appeared on the train, she told me joyfully. It was mine now and it was a real pleasure helping me back to Toronto. Have a good day, but have an even better trip.
That was the first time… in French.
Yet in French, there is freedom. In casting aside my mother tongue in order to use my second, I could finally be Anglophone–an identity that was, at last, acknowledged by an outsider to my language group, a Francophone. So, in some ways, speaking French actually allows me to be English in a way that Anglophones simply won’t let me.
Using language, be it the one from my childhood or the one that I later learned in adulthood, has always been a political act, one that has mostly reflected the politics of other people. Despite the fact that I have conversations with people and excitedly exchange ideas with them, I don’t seem to ever get a say in how my identity unfolds during such moments. These are the moments where I am assigned an identity or given a mask, and asked to play, not my part, but the part others need me to play for them. When I show confusion over this casting, when I indulge in a soliloquy that explains why this personage is not authentic to my character, I am met with a familiar gaze: I am being difficult. In trying to be true to my character, I become cast as the diva.
I have learned, over time, that there appears to be no dialogue that can convince some directors and audience members alike as to why I don’t want to play a part imposed on me. Those are the times that I background myself and close the scene.
Kachru, B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the outer circle. In G. Quirk, H.G. Widdowson (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literature (3–22). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.