Cultural Struggles and Learning English

27 Feb

This week’s readings were quite emotional, which made them more relatable and compelling. The first was Silence to Words: Writing as Struggle by Min-Zhan Lu; the second, The Achievement of Desire, a chapter from Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez (Sorry, I could not find a link for this one). Both were from the perspective of learning English as an additional language, and the struggle that accompanies it when learning as a child.

In both readings, English was encouraged by their families. For Min-Zhan Lu, her parents hired a live-in tutor, and at home, they spoke English. This is surprising to me for a family living in China at such a pivotal time in the country’s history, the 1950s.

Min-Zhan Lu spoke of how she thought of English as her family’s language. At school, she spoke Standard Chinese. Since she started at the age of four, learning came easily, and she attached one mean to each word she learned. She used the example of “red” meaning “love” for motherland at school and home for her mother, and how both “loves” meant how she felt about my mother. However, as she aged and with the dynamics of her country changing to socialism, in high school, she realized her home language and her school language were in conflict.  This conflict of discourse caused her to withdraw and become silent, and she felt a great lack of control.

Richard Rodriguez felt this conflict of discourse, but as a young man, he felt ashamed of his parent’s lack of mastery of the English language, even though they encouraged him. However, his struggle to find the discourse lead him to withdraw from his family and pursue academia. He read in a devouring manner to find the verbiage, to imitate what he learn in school, and he was praised for doing such. He saw himself as a scholarship boy. This ultimately took him to London where he was among the elite in his field of Renessiance study. As he sat in the British Museum, he also realized how lonely he was, and longed for home.

With each of essays, the writer felt conflicted between who they were at home and who they were at school. While Min-Zhan Lu ultimately was grateful for her conflicts and what she learned from them, Richard Rodriguez seems to have had more of struggle learning where he and his voice fit into the discourse around him.

As a much older student, I relate to their struggles. While my nationality does not separate me from the college discourse, my age, and background do cause a conflict. When having discussions in classes, I am aware of my separation from the others. Many find discussing juxtapositions of various essays and quoting Burke, or Chaucer, or expounding on the latest classical works they have read to establish themselves a place in academia; I am questioning why I am even there. A part of me likes the jargon used, but I know I can not use it outside the classroom. Moreover, when I am around my family and friends, I am careful not to use the language of academia, and since many of my friends are already past college they have no real desire to hear about what I am doing there; they merely tolerate when I speak about it. I, too, feel the pressure of silence and long for a place that doesn’t feel so lonely.

So while these essays were to shed light on how cultural differences can affect the individual learning to maneuver and struggle within the English language, I found they also have value for those who are generational separated in the hall of academia. I leave you with a quote Min-Zhan Lu that started her essay as food for thought:

“Men are not built in silence, but in work, in  work, in action-reflection.” ~Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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Posted by on February 27, 2016 in Uncategorized


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