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Bilingualism: The new thesaurus

Written By: Carmen Chung on July 29, 2008 No Comment

I am a first generation Chinese American, or in other words, an “ABC” (American born Chinese). Even though I can speak English fluently, my first words were in Cantonese. Before I entered the public school system, I spoke only Cantonese. However, by the time I started kindergarten, my parents encouraged me to speak English. It wasn’t long when I started speaking only English at school and at home. Even though I was no longer conversing in Cantonese, I was still exposed to the language. My parents would speak to me in Cantonese and I would respond to them in English. My parents believed that it is crucial for me to learn English because I am living in an English-dominated country. Both my parents had no formal education in English, so it was really hard for them when they first immigrated to America. My grandmother, on the other hand, was always disgusted when I spoke English in front of her. Whenever I was with her, I would have to speak to her in Cantonese. It was really difficult because I rarely speak it anymore. I only listen to it. Thus, I began developing Chinglish (code-switching between English and Cantonese). Whenever I could not think of the word in Cantonese, I would just say it in English. My grandmother was not at all impressed or satisfied with my Chinglish. Thus, I started to practice my Cantonese more and more.

I do not consider myself an advanced speaker in Cantonese at all (even though it was my first language). I still use Chinglish. However, I sometimes find myself doing just the opposite. I would use Cantonese because I cannot find the right words in English. For instance, when my friend and I were having lunch, I would say, “Don’t eat so many chips! It’s….yeet hey.” My friend would ask, “What’s yeet hey?” I could not find the right words in English to explain. A word-for-word translation would literally mean “hot air”. The best I could tell her is that it will make her sick because it’s not healthy. To this day, I still cannot clearly define what yeet hey means, but I understand it completely in Chinese.

Being bilingual has helped me tremendously in communicating with others, especially with my family and friends. I find it easier to express myself because I have a wider range of vocabulary to choose from.

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