Thoughts on Being Multilingual

Jason Thai

With the recent news of Trump calling Crimea as part of Russa, I cannot help but think about how our languages and identities intertwine. I was born into a multilingual family. My parents were born in Vietnam but their parents were from China, which meant they grew up knowing both Chinese and Vietnamese. Not only that, since their ancestors were from a Chinese region where people speak a different dialect, they both know multiple Chinese dialects (Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien). I was also born in Vietnam and grew up in an extended family where we exchanged words through either Vietnamese and Cantonese (Unfortunately I couldn’t pick up any other dialects from my parents). Later on, I studied English and when I moved to the states, English also has become my daily language.

On the contrary of most people’s belief that Americans tend to only speak English, I have found out that most people that I talk to in the tech industry - albeit this is a bubble - are multilingual. Just on top of my head, the languages that my coworkers speak include English, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, French, Portuguese, German, Polish, Russian, and various Indian languages. This creates an immense diversity of culture that makes the mono-cultural world seem stale.

I find it interesting that I can identify myself not just by the country of origin but the languages that I speak. It helps me understand and appreciate the cultural references and nuances of different cultures. I can enjoy artwork and pop cultures presented in their native language. Things like watching a movie, listening to a song, or reading a book. Even though there is a common theme in expressions, different cultures bring their own not so subtle interpretations. Surely things can be translated from one language to another, but being able to understand the work in its own language is a joy of its own.

Also being multilingual helps me have a sense of connection to family, people, and heritage. We use languages to stay in touch with our families, talking to friends, making acquaintances. The fact that I can speak a different language really brings my family closer together. It reminds me of where we have come from and how far we have come. It also helps me understand that to live in another country doesn’t mean I gave up my former identity, and have a greater empathy for other people in the same situation.

Some suggest that multilinguals have multiple personalities and that we act differently when speaking in different languages. I find that very true. There are certain things that don’t exist in other languages, and this means different languages help me express myself better. My wife tells me that I am more passionate to her when speaking Vietnamese and that I sound smarter when I speak in English (Hence the reason this post was written in its language). I find myself more fragile, truer when speaking in Vietnamese and English helps me have a voice of reason.

I feel lucky to be multilingual as learning foreign languages is hard. It takes a long time to get familiar with a new language and I was fortunate enough that that process was integrated into my childhood. We take things for granted because we don’t have to go through the process of learning the language as a foreigner. I appreciate people learning a new language as it takes a lot of effort and it shows their interest in other cultures.