“Your English is very good!”: A compliment? (by Dr Zhongfeng Tian)

Zhongfeng Tian, our guest blogger this week, is originally from China, and a multilingual speaker of Mandarin and English with conversational fluency in Cantonese. He holds a PhD degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Boston College and is currently an Assistant Professor of TESOL/Applied Linguistics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. As a former ESL/EFL teacher, he worked with students of different age groups and cultural and linguistic backgrounds in China, Cambodia, and U.S. His research is theoretically grounded in translanguaging and critical pedagogies, and he strives to transform emergent bilinguals’ learning experiences through creating heteroglossic, meaningful educational contexts. He is the co-editor of two books: “Envisioning TESOL through a Translanguaging Lens: Global Perspectives” (Springer, 2020) and “English-Medium Instruction and Translanguaging” (Multilingual Matters, 2021).

As a former international student who is originally from China and has learned English as a foreign language, I have often got praised for my English skills in the U.S.: “Your English is very good!” or “You speak English very well”. While these comments affirmed my hard work in my past years of English learning and boosted my confidence to a certain degree, the more I heard them, the more I have felt conflicted about these “compliments”: they were just like constant reminders that I am not a “native” English speaker and I am an “outsider” in this country. Usually after this comment, people will follow up with a series of questions: “Where are you from?”, “Are you from China?”, and “How long have you been here?”, for example.

It was not until I started my PhD program that I began to unpack why I felt ambivalent. Having learned about critical theories in bilingual education/TESOL, I gradually realized the deficit language ideologies underlying these comments: native-speakerism and linguicism. In a society where monolingualism is privileged and the hegemony of English is prevalent, I am always judged by my English competence and compared against the so-called “native” English speakers. Perhaps the full messages are:

“Your English is very good! (But we can still hear your accent.)”

“You speak English very well. (But I don’t think you are from here.)”

I wanted to challenge and change these deficit language ideologies. Then I encountered the notion of translanguaging in a doctoral seminar class on bilingualism. I was really intrigued by the theory of translanguaging as it focuses on how bilinguals actually practice and do bilingualism – the dynamic, fluid language practices which transcend the norms of named languages (Otheguy, Garcia, & Reid, 2015; Garcia & Li Wei, 2014) and includes multisensory, multimodal, and multisemiotic performances (Li Wei, 2018). I think translanguaging as theory perfectly captures who I am because as a bilingual myself, it is my everyday practice when I communicate with my families and communities. More importantly, translanguaging as theory empowers me and affirms my positive bilingual identity as “language-mixing” behavior is no longer associated with social stigma (like Spanglish, Chinglish), rather it is a creative and critical language use (Li Wei, 2011).

Through a translanguaging lens, I have gradually moved away from a deficit framing of my own difference – being a “non-native” English speaker and an “outsider” who did not grow up and receive K-12 education in the U.S., to an asset-based view of seeing my difference – being a translingual, transnational individual who has an ever-expanding, dynamic, complex linguistic repertoire and can contribute alternative perspectives to challenge the U.S.-dominant narrative with creativity and criticality in education. In my research, I am dedicated to studying how we as educators could create heterogeneous, meaningful educational contexts for all language learners in which their full language repertoires and funds of knowledge are seen as valuable resources to be leveraged in meaning making tasks (e.g., Tian et al., 2020). It’s high time to move beyond those deficit language ideologies and reimagine a new normal where we truly celebrate, leverage, and sustain linguistic diversity instead of English-only practices.

Now if I receive comments like “Your English is very good!”, I will respond, “Thank you. I am a proud bilingual of English and Mandarin. What about you?”

Zhongfeng Tian

References

García, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Li Wei. (2011). Moment Analysis and translanguaging space: Discursive construction of identities by multilingual Chinese youth in Britain. Journal of Pragmatics, 43(5), 1222-1235.

Li Wei. (2018). Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics, 39(1), 9-30.

Otheguy, R., García, O., & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3), 281-307.

Tian, Z., Aghai, L., Sayer, P., & Schissel, J. L. (Eds.) (2020). Envisioning TESOL through a Translanguaging Lens: Global Perspectives. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

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