Bilingual Brokers: Race, Literature, and Language as Human Capital

Bilingual Brokers: Race, Literature, and Language as Human Capital

Bilingual Brokers: Race, Literature, and Language as Human Capital

Bilingual Brokers: Race, Literature, and Language as Human Capital

Synopsis

Reading Asian American and Latino literature, Bilingual Brokers traces the shift in attitudes toward bilingualism in postwar America from the focus on cultural assimilation to that of resource management. Interweaving the social significance of language as human capital and the literary significance of English as the language of cultural capital, Jeehyun Lim examines the dual meaning of bilingualism as liability and asset in relation to anxieties surrounding “new” immigration and globalization. Using the work of Younghill Kang, Carlos Bulosan, Américo Paredes, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, Chang-rae Lee, Julia Alvarez, and Ha Jin as examples, Lim reveals how bilingual personhood illustrates a regime of flexible inclusion where an economic calculus of one’s value crystallizes at the intersections of language and racial difference. By pointing to the nexus of race, capital, and language as the focal point of postwar negotiations of difference and inclusion, Bilingual Brokers probes the faultlines of postwar liberalism in conceptualizing and articulating who is and is not considered to be an American.

Excerpt

“What do you call someone who speaks three languages? a trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? a bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American.” This common joke actually contains several observations about what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu might call the linguistic habitus of the United States. First, the punch line of the joke assumes that the dominant culture in the United States is monolingual. Less obvious but also embedded in the joke is the definition of an American. This joke, for example, would not apply to a Spanish-speaking Latino in New York City or a Cantonese-speaking Chinese American in San Francisco. At the same time that it pokes fun at the seeming lack of interest among Americans in learning languages, the joke in the same breath excludes bilingual Americans from normative Americanness. From an academic standpoint, what the longtime scholar of bilingualism François Grosjean says about the changes to the linguistic habitus of the United States helps one to further reflect on the contingent humor of the joke. in one of his recent studies on bilingualism, the psycholinguist compares the lingual culture of contemporary United States to that of the 1970s when he was working on his seminal study of the bilingual experience, Life with Two Languages. After analyzing the 1976 Survey of Income and Education, Grosjean recalls that he “concluded that the United States was a heavily monolingual country when compared with other countries of the world,” with only about 6 percent of the population “speaking both English and a minority language on a regular basis.” in the 2010 publication, however, he . . .

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