Blog: Why can’t Asian Americans speak their native tongue?

A child can be bilingual if the parents speak both Asian and English languages at home. But there are unusual circumstances.

“Most of the third-generation Japanese Americans don’t speak Japanese,” said Charlene Grinolds.

“After the war, our parents wanted us to be American. Even if they sent kids to Japanese School, they spoke English at home.” The internment experiences of Japanese American parents during World War II discouraged many to immerse their kids in their Japanese heritage, including the language, for fear of being labeled as un-American.

Chang-Rae Lee, a bestselling author who doesn’t speak Korean, said, “My parents felt that there’s no use in learning Korean [in America].” His parents who had deliberately not taught Lee Korean, perceived that English is the gateway to success in mainstream America. Ironically, much of the subject matter in Lee’s books deals with Korean history, culture, and society.

Another example is my young friend’s immigrant parents from Taiwan, who opposed her majoring in Chinese and international trade in college. They preferred for their daughter to be an engineer.

However, my friend argued that China is now a major power and that speaking Chinese is an asset.

After much persuasion, her parents relented.

Why is learning one’s cultural tongue challenging? “It certainly would have been easier to pick up Korean as a child,” said Martha Choe, an American-born Korean and chief administrative officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Her parents didn’t encourage her to speak Korean. “Despite taking Korean language at the UW, it was hard for me to apply it because I was speaking English all the time.”

“In retrospect, I would have gone to an immersion program for a summer in Korea during college,” said Choe.

I have another immigrant friend whose children don’t understand any Chinese at all. My observation is that she wanted to learn English herself. By speaking English with her kids, she could improve her English skills, but it was at the expense of her kids being unable to keep their native language.

Another challenge for Chinese Americans is deciding which dialect to learn since there are more than a hundred dialects.

“I don’t know why people expect me to speak Mandarin or Cantonese,” said Ron Chew, an American-born Chinese and executive director for the International Clinic Health Services Foundation.

“One, I was raised in America. Two, the Chinese immigrants I grew up among didn’t speak either Cantonese or Mandarin. They spoke the village Chinese that I still speak. Many of the new immigrants who have come from Taishan also speak it as their first language.” Both Mandarin and Cantonese sound like foreign languages to Chew.

“That’s why for many American-born Chinese like myself, English becomes the language of choice during conversations,” Chew explained. ♦

10 Responses to “Blog: Why can’t Asian Americans speak their native tongue?”

  1. Will says:

    This is one of those inane, stupid questions. Of course Asian-Americans can speak their native language. It’s called English. We don’t question why Black people why can’t they speak African languages, we don’t question an American of Polish, French. German, or Irish decent why they **** they can’t speak those languages so why must we considered that an Asian who was born or at leased raised in America and attended school here to have to have a certain Asian language as their native language? Why must we think that English can’t be their native language?

  2. Don says:

    The only reason people expect native-born Americans of Asian heritage to speak their ancestral language is the image of Asian Americans as the “perpetual foreigner.” I’m a fourth generation American of Japanese ancestry. I speak French, German and Italian, but do not understand Japanese. Why is there an expectation that I speak Japanese? Nobody expects my wife, of French and German ancestry to speak French or German, or consider it “a shame” when they discover she doesn’t. When we are in Germany and France, I translate for us. Could it have something to do with my physical appearance and the expectation that only white and black Americans are “real Americans”? Many of my friends of Asian and Latino heritage are descended from families that have been in the US since the 19th century, longer than many of our white friends, but guess whom strangers assume to be American and whom strangers assume to be foreign?

  3. Rafa says:

    But even to those Chinese in other nations who speak their language fluently, they surely cannot be expected to “think” in Chinese?

    • Rafa says:

      What I mean is, these children still “think” in English primarily; Chinese is like a secondary language tool, and even with equal skill, there is inequal influence.

  4. Tiffany says:

    Well I can’t speak my mother tongue Cantonese, but I honestly don’t feel the need to regret that. I understand Cantonese 90% of the time just can’t revert back, plus I am still bilingual as I had to take Spanish in school as well as English. I can also understand Korean and some French too. So I’m safe for the most part on the another language thing haha. Anyway, I’m still in tune with my culture and my parents have influenced me alot that made me feel close to it. I think it’s mainly on how you influence each other and understand each other’s thinking. I was born and raised in the US, so I have that American mentality that cannot be erased. I know many FOB’s here who do understand the way Asian-Americans are, and in tune, I can understand the way FOBS are and respect their way of life, and b/c of that I do have several FOB friends and even though I can’t speak Canto, I just speak English and they still understand me and I can understand them when they speak Canto to me, but even if we speak two different languages we still have fun and do things together, celebrate Chinese New Year..etc. I would love to be able to speak Cantonese, but you know I don’t think it should be a huge issue as long as you know where you came from and show respect for your parents’ homeland. And what gets me the most is that some ppl say its my parents fault, don’t think it’s no one’s fault, just a structural thing, plus my parents did a good job raising me and my brothers..just b/c we don’t speak Cantonese makes them bad parents.

  5. Gene says:

    It really depends on their families and especially their parents. See me and my wife are native Chinese speaker born in China. When the kids were as young as 3, we let them speak English at home. It’s convenient for them, and also we got to practice our broken English. Eventually we lost the control of this.

    However, we do have friends families who would require only Mandarin or other dialect of Chinese is spoken at home. And their kids are so proud of speaking good Mandarin Chinese, and just the same as kids in China. They are just proud of speaking another language which is getting even more important in this economy.
    Now our teenage boys are in high school, they realize that they did not try hard enough. We as adults sometime regret that we did not set rules as to what language to speak at home.

    We started a movie program since last summer. We learned from other Chinese families that they let their kids watch Chinese dubbed movies. We thought that makes perfect sense. Instead of giving them text books to read, it’s easier to watch a movie everyone can enjoy, especially the kids are already familiar with the contents of those movies, e.g., Chinese dubbed “Harry Potter”, “High School Musical” or “Avatar”, and “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, etc. Actually, more and more western Disney / Hollywood movies are dubbed in Mandarin Chinese mainly for the China market. We just did not realize they can be great tool for kids to learn a new language. I believe there are many foreign language dubbed American movies. As long as kids are given the opportunity, and feeling sense of accomplishment (understand the conversations in the movies through watching what’s happening in the episode, listening to dubbed conversation, reading English subtitles), learning a foreign language can be fun.

  6. Steven Capsuto says:

    Besides, your headline is dead wrong: they *do* speak their native tongue. It’s called English.

  7. Steven Capsuto says:

    You’re taking a general human trait and trying to make it sound like an unusual circumstance for a particular group of people.

    How many grandchildren of Greek emigrés can carry on any kind of meaningful conversation in Greek, even if they attended Greek School after their regular school? I imagine it’s less than a third.

    How many grandchildren of Italian immigrants to Japan speak Italian?

    To try and particularize this as an Asian-American oddity seems silly.

  8. Andy M. says:

    I think that the same thing is true for other immigrant groups. For example, many of the 3rd generation of German Americans cannot speak German. I’m a 1st generation Japanese immigrant and hardly use Japanese at work and in private. If I had a kid, I want him to respect the heritages of me and my wife (Japanese, Swedish, Dutch, and Irish). Then again I will not be compelled to send my kid to a Japanese class unless he wants to. There will be no compelling reason for me to teach him Japanese (just like he doesn’t need to learn Swedish).


  1. […] schools pushing for rapid fluency of the English language in Asian-American children, and with parents viewing English as the more beneficial and profitable language. In addition, the local vernacular dialects are harder to learn in environments where mostly […]

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