This is where working at a university whose library boasts it has a copy of every book ever published in English, whether digitally or physically, comes in handy. This is where I found some texts for the smaller countries, especially those in the Pacific. A book called Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia edited by Evelyn Flores, Emelihter Kihleng and Craig Santos Perez proved to be invaluable. It’s a collection of poetry, short stories, critical and creative essays, chants, and excerpts of plays by Indigenous Micronesian authors and it tells you which country in Micronesia each of the authors are from including Marshall Islands, Guam, Nauru, Kiribati, Palau, and the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia – Kosrae, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Yap.
Out of the various works from writers by Palauan writers in this book, I’ll be focussing on “Language with an Attitude: Palauan Identity with an English Accent” by Isebong M. Asang for this post.
This essay was all about Isebong M. Asang’s experience with language. She grew up speaking and writing Palauan at home with her parents (who both also knew Japanese from when they were in school but never taught her) but at school in Hawaii had to always speak, read and write “Standard English”. Likewise, with her own children, the older ones who grew up around their grandparents are fluent in Palauan but the younger ones who wasn’t exposed to the language as much only know a few words. It’s sad but also not really surprising that the children who understand Palauan will respond to her in English when she talks to them in Palauan.
I am British, born and raised in the UK, so my first (and only) language is English. I learnt French and Spanish at school and I’ve pretty much forgotten all French and I can get by on conversational Spanish thanks to the fact my dad lived in Spain for about 18 years. I am forever impressed by people who can speak more than one language and the following stat from this essay blew my mind – “about 1.6 billion people speak English in one form or another on a daily basis”. English, much like our colonial ancestors, is an infectious language which is seen as the norm by those in any form of power.
This essay shows how it was drilled into Asang’s head from a young age that she wouldn’t succeed if she didn’t have good English. As an adult she has a bit of an identity crisis as she speaks Palauan with an English accent, making her sometimes unsure of how truly Palauan she is. Isebong M. Asang talks about code switching and how the text books in Palau are slowly changing and that Palauan is still taught though English still becomes the most predominant language.
This essay was really interesting as while it focuses on Isebong M. Asang’s identity and the Palauan language, the ideas it brings up can be applied to so many people from different countries and who know different languages. Especially those who are second generation immigrants and may not be as fluent in their parents’ language as they feel they should be and therefore might not feel as close to that culture or identity.
This essay also doesn’t give any real solutions to this almost universal problem – school’s might be changing slightly but it’s slow going and as we live in a world where English is seen as the default – instead it’s just how Isebong M. Asang feels about her language and identity, which perhaps makes it more impactful.