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#91 Multilingualism

Posted September 17th, 2008 by Shaun · 51 Comments

‘It’s tough being an Asian male growing up in a Western country. You’re often subjected to Asian stereotypes, and white guys tend to steal your girls a whole lot. However, you wanna know one great upside to being a Gen Y Asian in a Western country? If you keep your mouth shut and say nothing, people will make the assumption that you’re multilingual!
- Anonymous monolingual Asian

A white friend of mine once marveled at the supposed “superior” intelligence of the Asian. I quickly berated him for buying into such stereotypes. Who is to say one race is more intelligent than another? However, he was specifically referring to the uncanny ability of many Asians to be proficient in multiple languages/dialects. To be honest, I had to agree with him somewhat. (I do not totally agree with the above quote though. It is, however, nice for people to assume you have certain proficiencies based on your race.)

Nevertheless, those occasions where a random Asian on the street asks you something in a language/dialect you obviously do not understand can be a little annoying. But of course, even Asians themselves can fall for that stereotype which dictates that all Asians look alike. I’ve been mistaken for a Korean, Japanese, Malay and a Cantonese speaker in the past, and I’m quite bemused by this. But I digress”

Chances are if you’re Asian and you’re reading this, then it is quite probable that you are multilingual. One would like to think that along with English (assuming that since you are here, you can read English, right?), as an Asian, it is almost a cultural obligation to speak the language of your predecessors. Many privileged Asians often have the otherwise-incomprehensible ability to grasp all of the following: their mother’s tongue(s), their ethnic language(s), their country’s national language(s), and regional dialect(s) along with English. (Hey, why not add French, German & Spanish to the mix, and have a virtual United Nations on your hand!)

It has little to do with an Asian’s perceived intelligence, but rather the linguistic opportunities presented to us. Asians residing in Asian countries naturally speak their native language, along with a multitude of regional dialects ““ that is to be expected. Due to the rising prominence of English, many upper-class Asians who can afford a decent education are competent English speakers as well.

Westernized Asians are another matter. Although English may be the medium of instruction in the majority of these countries, Asians often converse with their family members and sometimes, their Asian friends in a communal Asian language. (Asian Asian Asian”¦ it’s lost all meaning now, hasn’t it? Let’s face it, we are suckers for tradition, and although it’d be far more convenient for us to unify under one singular language, oh no, we just have to continue to speaking ‘Asian”, don’t we?)

Even if you live in a Western country, those with first, second or even third generational Asian parents are often brought up on their mother’s tongues. Consider this phenomenon in the case of Caucasians with second or third generation parents from Europe. There is not always that obligation that they should be able to converse in the language of their predecessors. Should an Australian of Irish origin be expected to be able to converse in Gaelic? Is there an expectation that African-Americans should have the ability to speak the language of their ancestors, centuries past? How about a Canadian with the last name Schmidt, are they expected to be fluent in German? Of course not! Why then, is that double standard present when it comes to Asians? Even if we’ve lived in Western environments all our lives, why are we expected to have extra linguistic skills based on our race?

Asians realize that to be truly successful in the modern day and age, they have to have optimum skills ““ and in many cases, being fluent in several languages is a prerequisite to becoming elite in your chosen field. Someone like Lucy Liu speaks 5 languages/dialects with varying degrees of fluency, as does fellow actor Takeshi Kaneshiro and singer-songwriter Wang Lee-hom, among many, many others. I’m sure that this is barely the tip of the iceberg. For the record, yours truly knows people who speak at least 8 languages/dialects ““ English, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Shanghainese, Hakka & Teochew – all fluently. Anyone know any other cunning linguists of equal or more talent?

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51 responses so far ↓

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  • 2 Gaurav Ahuja // Sep 17, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Intelligence for Asians(people of Northeast Asian ancestry) is high And of course there are inherited traits that help Please stop pretending everyone or every group is close to being equal, It is getting pathetic with the scientific precision that is happening. Also, people expect Asians(orientals in the American sense) to be multi-lingual since most people from that part of the world have immediate family members that speak their ancestral language. Also, Whites from earlier generations were encouraged to assimilate much faster. In addition, people in Europe are learning English rapidly. This is especially the case in Western Europe where I have been. Hence, nobody expects Whites to be multi-lingual in English-speaking North America.

  • 3 Lazy AZN // Sep 17, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    it is awesome that you can speak more than one language, but that does not mean you can read or written that at all, i am Vietnamese and i can speak it fluently, but when it comes to reading or writing i struggle like hell

  • 4 YvesPaul // Sep 17, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Yup, I can attest to this. Other than English, I speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish and French. The anglo-saxon languages are not that different from each other, once you know one, you might as well learn the others, right? I think I’ll learn Japanese next, since there’s so many games and manga written in Japanese, it’ll make my life a lot easier.

  • 5 Shaun // Sep 18, 2008 at 12:14 am

    Gaurav – I have no idea how to respond to you. I mean, one race is not superior, or cannot possibly have a higher IQ than another SOLELY because of their race! Perhaps because of different education systems, culture, and systems of measuring IQ in different countries – then perhaps there’s your difference, but that has NOTHING to do with race.

    Lazy AZN – when did I ever say I could “speak more than one language”? Not to say that I can’t… but I never mentioned my linguistic skills (or lack thereof) at all. I would love to be as multilingual as many, many Asians are… but alas we’re not all so talented. It’s tough work learning new languages, you know?

    YvesPaul – good for you. You’re the sort of talented individual I usually despise. :D Nah, just kidding, you’re alright. I do agree that the Anglo-Saxon languages are all kinda similar, but that doesn’t make them any easier to learn. Same with Asian languages and dialects. If you can speak Cantonese, it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be able to learn/understand Mandarin in every case!

  • 6 Amy // Sep 19, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    Good post, Shaun!

    Personally, I don’t mind people’s expectation of us (Asians living in another country) to be fluent in our mother tongue. Maybe because it’s just me, and that I’m a fanatic when it comes to language. But I say it’s a rather “good” expectation. It pushes us to learn.
    And if you have the luck to be exposed to several different languages all at once, isn’t it a great opportunity to learn? Saves a lot on taking lessons. :) Also, in the case of recent immigrants, if you’ve already grown up with one language, it’s a shame to let it fade away. To me it’s like a precious asset. You should acquire new ones, but don’t lose the old one.

    Each to their own, of course. But I admire people with good language skills. And by that I don’t only mean “people who speak many languages”, I also mean “people who may only know one language but is super good at it”. Either quantity or quality, it’s your call. And even better if you have both!

  • 7 tracy // Sep 20, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    The more languages you know the better. I’m always sad when I run into Asian parents here in Canada who refuse to teach their kids the mother tongue afraid that it might hinder their English.

    I know English, French, Cantonese and Vietnamese :)

  • 8 Waterlily // Sep 22, 2008 at 6:22 am

    I live in an Asian country and can speak four languages (all of which are (my) ethnic, local and national languages) plus English. Part of it depends on your own background, too- a kid with parents who’ve lived in the same place for generations and whose local language is the same as what gets spoken at home, probably wouldn’t be exposed to as many opportunities to learn or speak yet another language.
    That said, it’s great fun being multilingual- IMO it’s a sad thing that ‘assimilation’ means losing your native language, it gives rise to some very interesting thoughts about the US..

  • 9 YASPy Chick // Sep 22, 2008 at 6:30 am

    Most Asians born/raised in an English speaking, western country still have connections to the old country, whereas an American named Hermann or Schmidt probably had ancestors who came generations ago. That’s why lots of people think Asians speak more than “just English.”

  • 10 mvuong // Sep 22, 2008 at 9:48 am

    I always thought languages came easy to me. I speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Teochew, English, and French with varying success in Spanish and Vietnamese.

  • 11 Peter // Sep 22, 2008 at 10:14 am

    wow! that’s quite a bit of multilingualism you have in you, mvoung


  • 12 kvietgrl // Sep 22, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I agree with Tracy…Asian parents need to understand the importance of helping their kids keep their mother tongue and also stop only speaking in english with their kids. It’s such a waste.

  • 13 Auyreon // Sep 22, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    I totally agree that knowing more than one language is better, as these days you really need an edge in order to get that job/position and stand out from the hundreds of other applicants who has similar qualifications. It definitely opens up more opportunities for one and gives you more avenues of information. I also find that you’ll be able to understand other cultures better through learning their language.

    I know Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Malay, Japanese, Italian and French (in varying degrees of fluency). I am currently attending a university in France, to try to become more fluent!

  • 14 Shaun // Sep 22, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    Thanks for the comments guys! You know what I’ve discovered… Asians are very proud of their linguistic skills. It’s like a source of pride for several of you and almost something to boast about amongst some of us… and rightfully so, if you’re that talented might as well flaunt it! I’ve always thought it’s better to be more modest in relation to your linguistic abilities, can seem a little arrogant sometimes, but that’s just me. But my question is, how many languages is enough? Seems a bit superfluous knowing so many languages, to those of you who speak 5+ languages, spanning Asian & Western languages, do you really put ALL of your linguistic talents
    to use? Seems a bit “show-offy” that’s all… or maybe it’s just envy from me :D

    I wanted to especially touch on Yaspy Chick’s comment though:

    ” Most Asians born/raised in an English speaking, western country still have connections to the old country, whereas an American named Hermann or Schmidt probably had ancestors who came generations ago. That’s why lots of people think Asians speak more than ‘just English.” ”

    So does that mean in several generation’s time, when our children’s children’s children become totally assimilated to Western culture, we’ll end up like most Caucasians, not necessarily meaning we’ll be exclusively monolingual, just that there won’t be that multilingual expectation when they see an Asian face?

    But that serves up the biggest conundrum from my POV. As people have said, from a purely cultural POV it’s a bit of a shame if we can’t speak the language of our ancestors. But from a practical point of view, wouldn’t it be far easier for international relations if we all spoke the same language? I suppose that’s why English has become so prominent in the past few decades. The lingua franca of our modern age, so to speak…

    Sorry about that, I know, I could’ve created another whole piece with that spiel…

  • 15 Eric // Sep 23, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    Let’s see. I can understand chinese but speaking it is another matter (and reading it….forget about it). I do speak English though obviously and have spent quite a few years learning French (Soph. in HS). Although saying that I speak French is a differnt matter….

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  • 17 charlie chaplin // Sep 29, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Mutlingualism is sweet! U get to spy on others when they talk in a language they think you don’t understand. Also very good when barganing with flea market ppl xD

  • 18 Vil // Oct 6, 2008 at 2:35 am

    “So does that mean in several generation’s time, when our children’s children’s children become totally assimilated to Western culture, we’ll end up like most Caucasians, not necessarily meaning we’ll be exclusively monolingual, just that there won’t be that multilingual expectation when they see an Asian face?”

    I doubt that would happen . People expect people who don’t look Caucasian or African American to be able to speak their mother language. If you say you can’t then they’ll probably ask you why you can’t. Despite how you appear, if you divulge your ethnic background people will always ask you if you can speak the language.

    I also doubt that people will forget their heritage so easily or lose interest in the culture of the country or countries they originally come from.
    Take the young Asian children in this generation. They’re not trying to prove their Americans like the young Asians of previous generations but rather they know they’re Americans and are now trying to prove they’re Asian.

    On a side note I just tried to listen to the password I need to put in order to post and let me just say it was a very creepy, jumbled, sounded like many people talking backwards. That happen to you guys?

  • 19 Vil // Oct 6, 2008 at 2:53 am

    19368653 – that’s what i hear when i listen to the recording. First starts off a beep like you’re listening to phone messages and then a bunch of garbled voices. Some of the voices sound like they’re being played backwards and then they’re are others which sound like they’re saying something in a language I can’t understand and then I hear the numbers being repeated by different voices – some male, some female and in different tones. That happen to you guys? I’m really creeped out.

  • 20 vil // Oct 6, 2008 at 11:08 am

    Bwhahahha I’m an idiot. No more reading M.R. James late at night.

  • 21 Amy // Oct 12, 2008 at 7:11 am


    I totally know what you meant when you said “I could’ve created another whole piece with that spiel” :) So I wrote a looong one on my blog to respond to you. The pingback link should be here any minute now.

  • 22 Anonymous // Oct 14, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    After reading this article, I feel like I’m overachieving myself. Yes, I know how to speak 8 languages conversationally and learning all 8 at different times. Vietnamese, English, Cantonese, Spanish, French (just enough to translate some songs), Sign Language (heck, does this count?), Latin (I was bored and wanted to take a college-credit course in Sophomore year), and Japanese (my cousin is half Japanese who LIVES in Japan and taught me some everyday thing). I am currently trying to teach myself some little Korean as well as Mandarin. And yeah, that’ll be 10 total languages? That’s my goal aside doing good in school – to reach 10 languages before I graduate high school. XP It’s very interesting to learn new languages.

  • 23 Bianca Xue // Dec 3, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    I guess I should be proud of myself. I suppose that many Asians take advantage of the fact that they live in a place where they have the opportunity to learn different languages. In China, it’s either English or German…or bust. I know Mandarin, Japanese (my friend’s dad is a Japanese teacher), somewhat fluent in Korean (years of effort on my friend’s part), French, Spanish, and Latin (woot UTS!). I’m planning on taking German this semester. Of course out of all of these languages, the ones I use the most are only Mandarin and English. Though Japanese and Korean are useful when it comes to dramas :D .

  • 24 Aoede // Dec 11, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Note that “Gaelic” without a modifier is taken to refer to Scottish-Gaelic (Gaidhlig), which, while relatively close to Irish-Gaelic (Gaeilge) in linguistic terms, is a completely separate language.

    Thank you.

    //someone who is sick of non-Irish people mixing the two up

  • 25 Not Korean // Dec 27, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    If we’re going to split hairs about labeling languages, I should point out that French and Spanish are not Anglo-Saxon, they’re Romance languages. Anglo-Saxon refers to Old English, which is derived from early Western German with influence from Norse, Latin, and Celtic languages. Romance languages came from Vulgar Latin being spread throughout the Roman Empire and developing separately in different regions.

  • 26 Jon // Jan 3, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    8 dialects? that is quite impressive…

    But your friend is somewhat right, i find grasping a new language is actually relatively easy for me. (take Spanish class… Nobody has a f-ing clue what the teach is saying and I’m like “si, si, yo entiendo)

    And I speak Mandarin and understand Suzhounese… I’m trying to get Canto but for some reason I just can’t grasp that one (6 tones, are you FRIGGING KIDDING me?).
    now I feel inadequte.

  • 27 Bob // Jan 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

    My friend from Panama, but who has Chinese parents, speaks (most fluently) Spanish, English, Cantonese, Toisan, and Mandarin. My aunt speaks Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Some of my cousins speak Spanish, English, and Cantonese

  • 28 Leen // Jan 10, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    I know English, Malay, Foochow, Cantonese, Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesia, Hokkien in various level of fluency and am trying to learn Japanese. Lol. I guess I’m pretty Asian.

  • 29 Muhammed // Feb 15, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    The reason I feel so many asians are multilingual is because their native language is so much harder to learn then the Indo-European language, because of the lack of an alphabet and the complexity of its symbols, making it is easier for them to learn Western languages.

  • 30 sandy // Sep 27, 2009 at 12:07 am

    I agree with the person who said the speaking is alright, but not the writing/reading! lol

    but is always handy – i can speak Hokkien, Malay, English and German – yes, I am one of those Chinese who cant speak Chinese :( , my biggest regret (my parents don’t speak it either)

  • 31 polka_dots35 // Nov 2, 2009 at 4:29 am

    I only speak 3 languages fluently, English, Mandarin and Hokkien (lost my fluency in Malay a long time ago).
    However, I do have to say that many 2nd and 3rd generation Asians do not speak their mother tongue or Asian language. I still get many shocked looks from parents who can’t believe I can speak Mandarin, let alone Hokkien, considering my parents are not fluent with Mandarin. So in my opinion, I think more and more Asian children in Western countries are not able to speak their mother tongue, simply because they don’t see the use of it in a Western society.

  • 32 JTheGreat // Dec 23, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    I’m full Filipino, but I was born in the US and haven’t yet taken the time to become fluent in it. So I can only understand it and speak it barely.

  • 33 Jane // Dec 24, 2009 at 5:12 am

    I take pride in my language learning gift :)
    I think learning languages for me is not that hard, it’s fun, and there’s another way for me to express myself.

    I speak (fluently) English, Mandarin, Hokkien, (conversational) Cantonese, Spanish, Malay and Indonesian. Definitely want to learn a few more.

  • 34 AnotherJ // Dec 27, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Not sure how much being Asian has to do with my interest in learning languages, but my domain would be Mandarin, Spanish, German, and of course English. Picked up bits of Taiwanese, Italian, Esperanto, etc. over the years. It’s wonderful learning how language shapes communication, and it never hurts to have access to and understand more cultures. Perhaps the curiosity stemming from living biculturally does play a role, and for those of us who grew up in a bilingual household, the “step up” opened the way to language-learning, and made it more possible. Doesn’t hurt that multilingualism is marketable, of course. :P

  • 35 Valerie // Jan 4, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    hello (:
    i started to read these posts recently since according to my friends im more asian than them (im a hispanic teen girl)
    and i really like this post and i for one can also speak different languages,English, Spanish, Italian, Korean and French. My parents have always pushed me into learning various languages because in the long run it helps (:

  • 36 Angela // Feb 14, 2010 at 10:07 am

    I feel so shabby! All I know is English.

  • 37 Raz // Feb 18, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    @JTheGreat, same case for my nephews and nieces.. they were born and raised in the US so whenever they visit us here, we talk to them in Filipino but they answer back in English. As you said, they can understand the language but barely speak it.

  • 38 ash // Oct 27, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Despite being born in the UK, I read and write 4 Anglo-Asian Langs!
    A must for all eartlings in short years to come where Indo-Sino influence will be everywhere.

  • 39 News trends // Dec 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Picked up bits of Taiwanese, Italian, Esperanto, etc. over the years. It’s wonderful learning how language shapes communication, and it never hurts to have access to and understand more cultures.

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  • 42 wood pellets // Mar 1, 2011 at 1:22 am

    If she were being made of iron, the incident might have induced such a tear that she could have filled with water in a very couple of minutes and sunk. But she was manufactured from Mold Steel Plate. The Rotomahana was the primary metal ocean-going steamer to undergo a serious accident, through her harmful experience the immense superiority of metal about iron was demonstrated. Through that time on, all boats were built of metal.

  • 43 links london // Mar 21, 2011 at 1:31 am

    Good to hear that you are back to blogging. I am looking forward to some good article.

  • 44 not so short Asian // Jul 30, 2011 at 2:45 am

    I’m from the Philippines, and I know of one person that can speak a multitude of languages (he’s already dead though). Know of someone named Jose Rizal? speaks close to 33 foreign languages and 50+ native dialects in our country, being as it is he’s our national hero. Just sharing, hehehe!!! Proud multilinguist!

  • 45 not so short Asian // Jul 30, 2011 at 2:46 am

    BTW, you guys can actually Google him, he’s pretty famous, hehehe!

  • 46 Isabelle // Oct 14, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    According to Newsweek (which I don’t believe) multilingual people have a smaller vocabulary. The more the languages, the less the vocabulary.

    I disagree. My friend only knows English and she didn’t even know what minuscule meant when I said it about her handwriting. o.o

  • 47 Louis Vuitton // Oct 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    good article!thank you for sharing!

  • 48 Isabelle // Mar 7, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Some kid in my class came up to me and asked, “Do you speak Asian?” and I felt way too lazy to explain that Asian was not a language in itself so I simply replied, “Uhh sure, but I speak a different dialect.”

    Later on I said I spoke Tagalog. And he had no idea where the hell that was from.

  • 49 Richard16378 // Apr 4, 2012 at 10:58 am

    My Chinese ex-girlfriend normally spoke to her bilingual friends in Manderin, but once she played a trick on one by ringing them up & only talking English.

    I only heard half the converstation but it sounded like the friend had no idea who was calling them for a few seconds.

  • 50 ilovehorseyrides // Jun 9, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    Me and my cousins and sister speak Cantonese and English and my relatives not just know those 2 but they also know Mandarin and Vietnamese and relatives on my father’s side speaks Teo Chew. Yeah, we speak multi Asian languages but I only understand and speak Cantonese LOL

  • 51 دريم هاوس للتنظيف بالرياض // Jun 27, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    and i really like this post and i for one can also speak different languages,English, Spanish, Italian, Korean and French. My parents have always pushed me into learning various languages because in the long run it helps (:

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