Bilingualism is a Feature, Not a Bug

Bilingualism is a Feature, Not a Bug

Bilingualism is a Feature, Not a Bug

Shifting perspective on my non-native English

April 1, 2019 | Meilin Z.

If you are a non-native English speaker like me, have you ever felt that your English was not good enough? And worse, did you feel that your English would never be as good as a native speaker’s? I did.


My native language is Mandarin Chinese, and while I learned English growing up in China and honed my skills during a travel abroad educational experience in Scotland, when I began my graduate program in the US, I struggled to speak up in class discussions. Sometimes I had a thought I wanted to convey, but I could not find the right words to express it, and the moment would pass. I really wished I could speak my mind more fluently in English.


Furthermore, as a graduate student, I have a lot of papers to read on a daily basis. At first, it took me a long time to finish reading long research papers, and I always felt I was not ready for class discussions. Writing papers in English was a constant struggle for me. It took forever to start the first few sentences, and I constantly tried to edit when I wrote. By the way, that’s not a good idea — you can’t edit and write at the same time!


One day, it occured to me that I’d been neglecting my strength in my native language and focusing too much on my limitations in English. “I’m not a native English speaker, but I’m a bilingual speaker!” I said to myself. I needed to shift my perspective and see my bilingual status as an asset, not a liability. Having this change in perspective gave me a boost in confidence. I began to find ways to embrace this linguistic and cultural asset.


In my own research as a linguist and cognitive scientist, I have started to take advantage of my knowledge and language skills in Mandarin Chinese. Having access to Mandarin offers me a unique perspective on language research. In my recent and ongoing work, I use Mandarin as a tool to address theoretical questions in cognitive science.


Much of the field of language research uses the English language as the primary object of study. While languages in the world share some universal tendencies, each language has unique properties that can be used as test cases to address theoretical questions. A bilingual speaker is more likely to access resources to address research questions that are not available to a monolingual speaker.


As I’ve settled into my research, I have been able to use my bilingual skills to my advantage. On one project, I created a corpus of Mandarin classifier-noun pairs and performed a corpus analysis with my PhD advisor and co-author. I presented this work at the 2018 annual meeting of Cognitive Science Society, and our work won a prize for best student paper — and I was the first author!


This experience confirmed what I had already begun to believe: my bilingual status is a feature, not a bug! Of course, I still need to constantly practice and seek help to improve my English to reach the next level, but that doesn’t take away my pride in being able to use two different languages to express myself and to learn more about language in general.


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