Chinese for Heritage Speakers

I am a heritage speaker of Chinese. I define “heritage speakers” as people who have grown up hearing, and sometimes speaking, a language at home that is not the dominant language of work, school, and other social spheres. My experience growing up as part of the sino diaspora is not unique. My family often spoke to me in Mandarin. Elders and family who didn’t immigrate for education had little to no English skills. I learned to speak just enough Mandarin to get by at home. When my parents spoke to me and my brother in Mandarin, we would reply in English, which they had a good grasp of, as they had to use the language for work.

As a result, heritage speakers often have no problem pronouncing our heritage languages, but we often struggle with reading and writing skills, since we would rarely need to use them growing up. Furthermore, because relatives are unlikely to correct us for all the grammatical mistakes we make, we come to think that our anglicized syntax follows the broader linguistic norms of the language, when that’s not the case. When we try to speak in our heritage language to people who aren’t family, especially people who don’t have much contact with the diaspora (like people in the sourceland), we’re met with quizzical looks as we realize that the people around us adapted to our fusion home language, but everyone else doesn’t quite speak it.

When you’re a heritage speaker, you face pressures that non-heritage speakers usually don’t experience. I got a lot of strange looks as I was growing up—my face was Chinese, but the instant I opened my mouth, I revealed myself as “inauthentically” Chinese, since I didn’t know the language. We often face shame or ridicule for not knowing the mother tongue we’re “supposed” to know. Yet people rarely acknowledge how knowing the dominant language and abandoning heritage languages are all part of oppressive pressures to assimilate. Linguistic control is often used as a tool of White supremacy.

Many heritage speakers also find that the language we disdained or were cut off from growing up is now useful in the workplace. We now have to navigate the everyday microaggressions of knowing that people outside the culture will always be seen as having a more impressive knowledge of the language than heritage speakers, who are perceived as incomplete. I’ve known third- and fourth-generation Latinxs who go to job interviews with enthusiastic managers, only to have that interest dampen when the managers realize that, despite the name on the résumé, the applicant doesn’t speak enough Spanish to do business in it. While it’s hard to pinpoint the true reason why someone isn’t hired, there’s no ignoring the sense of shame and regret that often comes up as a result of those experiences. On top of that, resources for learning any given language are usually tailored toward people coming in with zero knowledge of the language, frustrating heritage speakers who come in with strong speaking skills and find the pace of curricula imbalanced.

So this is my open invitation to anyone in the sino diaspora to reach out to me for resources on learning Chinese and/or to ask questions about something that’s confusing. I loosely define the sino diaspora as people having cultural and/or familial ties to China, no matter how historic. This includes Chinese people who have settled in Southeast Asia and their descendants who have emigrated even further. This includes third-generation Chinese-Americans who don’t feel much of a connection to China. This includes mixed-race people and adoptees. This includes people who aren’t Han; knowing Chinese unlocks a wealth of information about Chinese ethnic minorities that’s not available in English. My definition of the sino diaspora does not depend on being a certain race, ethnicity, or nationality.

I am limiting myself to heritage speakers, as there are plenty of resources for people with no knowledge of Chinese to learn.

If you have any questions about how to get started learning Chinese as a heritage speaker or finding resources appropriate to your language level, or about grammar and vocabulary that hasn’t been explained to your satisfaction, please feel free to email me at s@qiouyi.lu. You’re also free to point any heritage speakers of Chinese to this page as well. Please keep in mind that I’m happy to do this labor, but it is still free labor—I will respond to every message, but it may take a while depending on my workload.

Please note that this is NOT an invitation to email me for translations for your fiction project, even if you are a heritage speaker. For that service, please see my Translation page.

Resources

I’m including a short list of online resources that may be helpful to heritage learners. This list will be periodically updated.

Last updated on May 7, 2020.