Moving past the familiar

During the last academic year, my five-year-old daughter had the fortune of getting to know two “big sisters”: Jessie and Momo, both from China. At the end of the academic year, when it was time to bid farewell to the two young ladies, my daughter told me how much she loved them. She liked both of them very much, but with a slight difference. In her own words, she loved Jessie jiejie (Sister Jessie) “the size of the earth” and she loved Momo jiejie (Sister Momo) “the size of our house.” Of course, in her five-year-old mind, the earth was just a tiny bit larger than our house. I was curious as to what had made such a small difference, since I knew very well that both young ladies loved my daughter to the point of spoiling her and she yearned to spend time with both of them. My daughter then revealed to me that she liked Jessie a little bit more because Jessie could also speak Shanghainese.

Five year ago, shortly after my daughter was born, I decided to carry out an experiment so that she would be able to speak both Shanghainese and Mandarin in addition to English. Shanghainese is my native tongue. I was born and raised in Shanghai, the largest city in China with a population of over 20 million, where most locals used to only speak the Shanghai dialect. The dialect is dying now since more and more young people have chosen to speak only Mandarin, which is the official common language in China. Even though Shanghainese, like many other regional languages in China, is commonly referred to as a “dialect,” linguistically it is very different from Mandarin. Some linguists say that the differences between various Chinese dialects and Mandarin are equivalent to the differences between two languages such as Spanish and English. To make a long story short, my experiment turned out to be a successful one – by the age of five, my daughter was fluent in all three languages. However, before she made the comment about Jessie, I had not known that she would hold Shanghainese and speakers of Shanghainese so dear and close to her heart.

After learning about Yale Professor Karen Wynn’s studies about babies and bias, I came to better understand the cognitive mechanisms behind my daughter’s preference (or bias). In one of Wynn’s studies, 11-month-old infants were asked to pick one of two stuffed animals, one of which liked to eat food (e.g. cheerios, graham crackers or green beans) that the infant prefers and the other did not. Almost all the infants tested picked the one that had a food preference that was similar to theirs. Now, my daughter’s unintentional bias toward Jessie made more sense to me. There are two possibilities: One is that she might have felt closer to someone who could speak Shanghainese because, despite the fact that she speaks all three languages, Shanghainese is the language that she uses to communicate with me in her daily conversations and therefore she has developed a stronger emotional attachment to it; and two, she might have felt closer to Jessie because like her, Jessie can speak Shanghainese, Mandarin and English, so the two of them share more similarities. Either way, her case is another example that proves the findings of Wynn’s research and many other studies that came before hers: Humans, including both adults and preverbal infants, prefer those who share similarities with themselves. In other words, we are hardwired to be biased.

To be sure, human beings are unknowingly biased due to even very trivial similarities or differences, but language, race, ethnicity and religion are among those more salient features that tend to trigger people’s biases more readily. Among these, race and language are probably the most significant ones. Studies have shown that three-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races and that monolingual 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language.

How do we deal with bias? Well, it will probably take volumes to offer solutions to this problem – that is, if human beings can ever find a solution. When we do, maybe this planet will see fewer wars and genocides.

As the 500-plus members of the Class of 2017 enter the College at this time of year, I can’t help but think about how every one of them is going to meet and get to know people who are similar to or different from them. Each person might be unintentionally biased toward or against others on this campus simply because of some perceived similarities or differences. How can we realize that we might carry such unintentional biases, and how can we deal with these biases?

I might be biased on this one because of my profession, but here is my solution: Learn a foreign language, and make sure your ultimate goal is not just to master the grammatical rules, but to be able to carry on real conversations with people who are from a different culture. Language is at the core of one’s self-identity. As pointed out earlier, it is also one of the most salient features a person uses consciously or unconsciously when identifying and judging a stranger. Learning to communicate in a foreign language not only helps reveal your inner self-identity and challenge your pre-existing biases when done successfully, it can also add a new layer to your core identity. Moreover, it will enable you to humble yourself and to earn respect and trust from people who might otherwise treat you as an outsider or who might be biased against you.

I would like to see my daughter grow up to be a multilingual and multicultural individual. I would liker her to be able to respect and appreciate people who have a very different cultural background from hers. With the American society becoming more and more open and diverse, there is a good chance that she can do it, in spite of the fact that she might still unconsciously feel a little closer to speakers of a dying Chinese dialect.

Everyone can become multilingual and multicultural if they choose to be.

Li Yu is an associate professor of Chinese.

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