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It is one thing to forget one’s first language after moving to a foreign land but it is a different thing when one moves to another country as an adult and makes a conscious decision to abandon the native language by adapting the second language. After moving to the United States, Yiyun Li abandoned her Mandarin Chinese language and started writing in English only. She claims that she has acquired a new language that everyone understands. Li choose English to form a new identity in the place she had decided to live. She made a conscious choice to give up Chinese and adopt a new language in the face of her enemies and friends. Li’s conscious decision to abandon her native Mandarin Chinese language implies that she has chosen to forget her past, form a new identity and forge ahead in fulfilling her American dream. Yiyun Li is a woman who went through a lot of pain in her native country and after she migrated to a new country, all she wanted was to start a new life and make it in (America) the land of opportunities.
Li’s conscious decision to abandon her native Mandarin Chinese language implies that she has chosen to form a new identity in the foreign land. Li was now living in a foreign land and as an author; she has to communicate to the audience in a language they can understand. Any writer’s purpose of writing any material is to communicate and the language in which the writing is done is the main tool of communication. Therefore, Li made the choice of abandoning her native Chinese language to reach a diverse group of people around the world. Moreover, she makes it clear that when one enters a new world/country, he/she has to speak “the language it requires” (Li, 2017). Therefore, she had to speak and write in the same language that many people understand and will be able to read her literature, and that is why she had to abandon the native Chinese language, which she felt could have hindered with her writing career.
In addition, Li abandoned her native language for social prestige. She chooses a social status over her native language because just like many immigrants would want to build up new cultural identities in new social environments. Li wanted a social connectedness for her personal growth and development in her new found home. According to Praharso, Tear, & Cruwys, life transitions can make an individual stressed up and depressed (2017). Li underwent serious stressful life transitions as she was trying to make it as a writer and also to let go of her native language. In her story, we learn that she even attempted suicide during these transitions and for this reason, she had to choose what was better for her as an author in a foreign land and she chooses to abandon her native language.
In To Speak is to Blunder, Yiyun Li makes a decision to abandon her native Chinese language and write in English because she insists that she has never been a Chinese writer. This is evident when she says, “My decision to write in English has also been explained as a flight from my country’s history. But unlike Nabokov, who had been a published Russian writer, I never wrote in Chinese” (Li, 2017). Li believed that she could not be a writer if she had never left her native country China and for that reason, she had every right to choose the language because everything to her was personal. She needed to forget about her past life while growing up and focus on her future, which was now in America and to fit in, she, had to make a choice.
In the memoir, we learn that Li’s choice to abandon her native Chinese language is a deeply sad and personal choice. She abandoned the Mandarin Chinese language to erase her sad past and focus on having a new identity and forge ahead with her writing career. She even reveals how she tried committing suicide two times while trying to move from Mandarin to English. She says, “To speak when one cannot blunder, I have spoken by having written this piece or any piece, for myself and against myself. The solace is with the language I chose” (Li, 2017). From the story, it is evident that Li had a rough past and a hard time trying to assimilate in a foreign country. Therefore, she made the choice of abandoning her native language to forge ahead and find a new identity that would help her integrate with the other American citizen Abandoning one’s language means abandoning one’s culture because a native language is the main component of a cultural identity (Aristova, 2016). Therefore, with Li abandoning her native Chinese language, it is clear that she is even letting go of her Chinese identity and taking on a new identity that will help her advance in her writing career.
When one moves to a foreign land, it is evident that he/she has adapted to the new cultural surroundings and language but this does not mean one has to do away with her/his native language. In Li’s case, she adapted to the new language in the United States and made a conscious choice to abandon her native dialect so as to fit in. Most immigrants will always be compelled to change their cultural identity so as to blend with the people in the new land and this will end up conflicting their beliefs (Aristova, 2016). Therefore, Li wanted to fit in or rather blend with the new culture and language and this is why she made a conscious decision to let go of her native language. She had acquired a new language and culture and so, since she was an author, she had to blend with the people around her including in her writing.
It is true that abandoning her Chinese language might have some implications for her career and overall life. For any writer, abandoning a native language, which has helped him/her establish a career, seems to be an odd move and could spell a disaster in a writing career. However, Li made the decision despite the looming implications as she argues a foreign language offers her new ideas and new words. But again, we ask ourselves, what is Li escaping from by abandoning her native language and writing in English? Most writers will always rejuvenate themselves by fleeing to foreign languages and Li is not an exception. Li adopted a new language and learned to write in the same foreign language, a language she felt comfortable with and also a language that had changed her life.
Yiyun Li has forged ahead in English for now, but again, abandoning her native Chinese language could be an opportunity to rediscover it in her future writings. According to Cherciov, some immigrants might abandon their first language and later on embrace it (2013). Many immigrants will always shift to the new culture and language because of the circumstances they have to face as migrants. Li had to assimilate into the new culture and system and with time, she gave up her own native language. The loss of a native language has its consequences like the loss of the real identity and culture but Li was determined to make it as an English author. She was determined to forget her sad past and start all over again in the United States.
In conclusion, in “To Speak is to Blunder: Choosing to Renounce a Mother Tongue, Yiyun Li makes a decision to consciously abandon her native language, write, live, and think in English despite the opposition from her friends and mentors. She is a woman who denounced her first language to forget her past, get a new identity and forge ahead in meeting her American dreams. In her story, she explains how she suffered while growing up and from the same story, we see how her life transformed after moving to America and for that reason, she abandoned her native language to forget all her pain and to focus on her future achievements. Li made a step that many authors fear making because they have a fear of being intimidated, losing their identity, and culture. However, despite all the implications, Li made a conscious choice to abandon her native Chinese language and start a fresh life in America where she became a renowned author.
Aristova, N. (2016). Rethinking Cultural Identities in the Context of Globalization: Linguistic Landscape of Kazan, Russia, As an Emerging Global City. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 236, 153-160.
Cherciov, M. (2013). Investigating the Impact of Attitude on First Language Attrition and Second Language Acquisition from a Dynamic Systems Theory Perspective. International Journal of Bilingualism, 17(6), 716-733.
Li, Y. (2017). "To Speak Is To Blunder: Choosing To Renounce a Mother Tongue" (New Yorker, 1/2/17: 31-33)
Praharso, N. F., Tear, M. J., & Cruwys, T. (2017). Stressful Life Transitions and Wellbeing: A Comparison of the Stress Buffering Hypothesis and the Social Identity Model of Identity Change. Psychiatry Research, 247, 265-275.
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