Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

How Heritage Languages Survive

The most familiar type of language planning is associated with language and education. Education policy, an often controversial topic, is only aggravated when language comes into play. We are all familiar with the horrors of the educational policies inflicted on the Native Americans, which when implemented essentially killed their language, or the failures of the general community to understand the Ebonics debate in California. But what happens when a community takes it upon themselves to ensure that through education their language will survive? What resources are needed and what sacrifices result?

Although Mandarin is not considered a dead or even remotely endangered language in the world, it has an unique place in the Finger Lakes region. Linguists would call it a heritage language, and this category still has its own challenges surviving in a monolingual environment. So, how would someone who speaks Mandarin maintain their language in the predominately English speaking Finger Lakes?

The Corning Chinese Association (CCA) may be the answer. Started in the 60’s with only a few families, it has since grown to over 486 members. Meetings began in people’s homes with dinners, but now are conducted at Corning Inc. in more official way. To find out more about the organization I had the pleasure of speaking with the Chair of the Corning Chinese Association (CCA) Cai, Baolin (Paul).

My first impression of Baolin was his openness. It is hard to talk about your language and your community with a stranger, but he willingly shared without hesitation. I got the feeling that I or anyone could join the group and learn a lot.

According to Baolin about 90% of the membership is bilingual. Although the language that the majority of membership speaks is Mandarin, other members may speak other dialects at home. I asked him what language the CCA meeting were conducted in, “a great question” he replied. If the member conducting the meeting sees that everyone in the room can speak Mandarin, he or she will conduct the meeting in Mandarin. But, if they see someone who can not speak Mandarin, then he or she will conduct the meeting in English. Also according to Baolin, there are occasions where he has used both Mandarin and English alternatively, switching back and forth, at various festivals and events.

I always feel a good sign of a language’s ability to survive is the basic services that are accessible through that language. I asked Baolin if Mandarin speakers could access their language outside of the organization. “Yes”, he said, “We have some doctors we can go to and even an optometrist.” In many ways I was relieved to hear this. After living three years in South Korea I knew how important and reassuring it is to find medical care in your own language.

I asked him how important the relationship between his language and culture was…”for us it is natural, many of us come from mainland China, so we can just speak it, but for our children…some parents really want their children to speak it, maybe even force them.” I told him that in the end it was a good idea to make sure the children were bilingual. There has never been any research showing that a child will be harmed by learning two languages, the only research I know about bilingual children shows an advantage.

In addition to donating and supporting to a Mandarin school in Horseheads and working with Kongzi Xueyuan Institute of Alfred University to enhance Chinese language teaching programs, the CCA also runs their own Chinese language school. Currently they have about 50 students and 10 members who can be teachers!

When I asked Boalin why it is important to learn Mandarin he mentioned the general fact that the world is becoming more globalized and in fact China has a greater impact on the world economy, but more interestingly for me, he mentioned that Corning Inc. was becoming more globalized. They now hold Mandarin lessons for workers who want to learn Chinese.

Although the organization has made huge strides in membership, support, and education there are still some challenges. When I asked him to describe the room where they held there meetings, I was expecting him to describe a space with framed plaques or art work, but he informed me that the organization does not actually have their own space. “If we had enough money we would decorate.” It seemed the school, now held in a church, suffers the same circumstances. When you borrow space you can’t make it your own. This is one of the sacrifices that many community organizations make. However, on the bright side, I have found that decorations alone do not make a rich linguistic environment, it is the people. After talking with Baolin I believe that Madrian has its place in the Finger Lakes. For more information on the Corning Chinese Association you can view: http://www.cca-ny.org/

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This entry was posted on November 25, 2009 by and tagged .
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