A couple notes on diglossia

October 17, 2011

Let me preface everything I’m about to say by first checking my privilege: I’m a white American. I’m affluent enough to up and move ten thousand miles without putting my whole family in serious financial peril. I natively speak English, and have never been forced to learn a second language because of my place in situation. I have never worked for minimum wage in the United States. I went to college mostly on loans.

Next, let me complicate my privilege a little bit: I’m the racial minority where I live. I do not have permanent residence here. The work I do puts me in a sometimes-fluctuating legal status, even though I am a legal alien. I’m the linguistic minority, and share no language with the government of the country I live in. I rely almost entirely on my employer and my bilingual friends to help me with legal and financial transactions. I’m learning, but I work full time and cannot devote enough time to the language to make a serious scholarly effort at it– my efforts are all pragmatic, all focused on getting me through my day-to-day routine.

This does not remove my white privilege, nor does it change the (quantifiable) fact of my linguistic privilege– I am employed because I speak English. That is the primary reason I am employed. My degree, my skills, my personal qualities are all secondary to this.


So! All that said, my kindergarteners are weird. Just last week, I got switched into a K2 class– what Americans would expect as normal kindergarten age, around four or five years old. They’ve had one year of school already, in K1, which is essentially preschool-with-high-expectations. After a year of ESL immersion in K1, my K2 kids are basically fluent in classroom English. They know the alphabet, they know all the objects in the room, they know most of the verbs we encounter every day (sit down, clean your bowl, go get a tissue, stop hitting your classmates, be quiet, don’t put your shoes there, color nicely, be careful not to drop your crayons, etc etc). They comprehend surprisingly complex syntactic constructions from me. They’ll parse conditionals, embedded clauses, WH-clefts, all sorts of bizarre shit that I can’t always explain analytically. They speak to me in English. They stutter almost exactly like American kindergarteners stutter. They get too excited to form words slowly, and garble everything together– exactly like American kindergarteners. There are very few times when I don’t understand them because of a language barrier. (I even understand some very basic child-uttered Chinese, like wo mei yo “I didn’t do it/I don’t have it!” and bu yao “I don’t wanna!”)

For the most part, they also speak to my Chinese co-teacher in English, and she does the same to them. This is where it gets interesting, though– for emotional concepts, or confusing things, the kids or my co-teacher will switch into Chinese. It’s just easier for them, and it’s not so impolite to me that they’d get in trouble. When she’s trying to figure out why someone’s crying, or trying to explain a difficult new task that we’re doing, Chinese is just smoother. My co-teacher will usually translate anything that I need to know, so I’m not terribly out of the loop. My kids will usually remember not to try to speak Chinese with me, though when they’re very emotional they sometimes forget.

With each other, the kids mostly speak Chinese. They speak it when they’re playing, or coloring and trading crayons, or gossiping, or teasing. There are only two situations in which I’ve ever heard these kids speak English to each other: either they’re bossing a classmate around (for general bossy reasons, or repeating my directions to get them to hurry up), or they’re calling them out for some perceived slight. English is the language of instruction and discipline, to them; this is what they use it for with me, so it’s what they use it for with each other. I’m constantly surprised with how consistent this is– I’ve seen similar behavior in my elementary students, and it gets more cemented the longer they’re in this format of school. Chinese is what you use for an emotional conversation; English is what you use for an official one. This is a kind of bilingualism that has the diglossia very finely cut, so the slices are almost translucent. They’ll change between sentences, but the code-switch is so controlled by this factor that I can sometimes figure out what they’re saying just by the fact that it’s not in English.


Anyways. It’s a thing. Thoughts, internet?

One comment

  1. Love it. It’s so Kirby.

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