Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the language of this seminal text demonstrates just how complex and odd English can be Wikipedia Commons

I am an English student.

By some remarkable convergence of time and place, it is the language that I grew up speaking at home. I speak in English, think in English, write in English, pray in English and rejoice in English. It is the language that rolls most naturally off my tongue. Yet, it was during a particularly frustrating lecture on Middle English in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that it struck me how odd it is that I speak English at all. To have grown up fluent in a language with such a distant cultural heritage seemed completely bizarre to me, particularly as I felt my tongue contort to tell the tales of swooning knights and scheming cuckolds.

Perhaps this requires some context.

My parents met while working in New York. They married in a church and moved to Singapore when I was a baby. I grew up watching Sesame Street, reading Roald Dahl, and playing Pokémon. I attended local Singaporean schools where I laughed, joked, and grappled with academic work in English. It was the language we felt most comfortable speaking in, much to the chagrin of our Chinese teachers. The way we conceived of ourselves and grappled with the challenges of adolescence were all shaped in English. Of course, we often slipped in and out of Singapore’s famous creole, Singlish, but that did little to tarnish our grasp of the language. We took our turns enlisting in the army, where the nuances of English lost their lustre and clarity became more important than sophistication. I returned to my old high school after completing my service, but as a teacher of English Literature.

“I think of the Christmas gatherings where goodwill was exchanged in English”

It would be disingenuous to claim that my relationship with the language has not changed since I’ve started at Cambridge. With the groundswell of the decolonisation movement within the English Faculty I’ve begun to question the way I read and perceive things. I’ve begun to recognise the mingling of cultures that was constitutive of my upbringing as inextricably bound up in the legacies of colonialism.

I think of the Christmas gatherings where goodwill was exchanged in English, as my Korean grandmother wordlessly exchanged hugs, kisses, and smiles with her grandchildren. I think of the friends at home struggling within the inexplicable sense of tension that arises from speaking a language not shared by their parents and grandparents. I think of the cultural dislocation I experienced growing up as the child of two ‘third-culture kids’, and of the medley of similar experiences all across the world. I think of the implicit superiority associated with fluency in English in Singapore and the self-congratulatory political rhetoric that connects colonial legacies and economic development. I think of the dichotomy entrenched in Singapore between ‘locals’ and ‘foreigners’. I think of the people that have been left adrift in cultures, identities, and experiences that they can never seem to call their own.

“I am the culmination of postcolonial, global pressures of place and history”

In my first term here, a good friend asked with the best intentions if I’d grown up speaking English since I was a “wee lad”, as he remarked that my command of the language was impeccable. I didn’t quite take offence at that. There are days when I wish that my Mandarin or Korean could match the ease and cogency of my English. There are days when I’ve felt the urgency of opportunity slipping away, of the chance to converse with my Korean grandmother without an intermediary. There are days when I wish my tongue rattled off in Cantonese with the same smoothness as that of my relatives. There are moments when I’ve questioned the seeming repudiation of my own cultures in the pursuit of critical sharpening and literary engagement.

In many regards, the English I speak is my own. It was never impressed upon me by coercion, nor has it felt like a disingenuous imposition. It is the language by which I have come to conceive of my sense of self and been able to make sense of world. This does not so much underscore my complicity with neocolonial structures but affirms that I am the culmination of postcolonial, global pressures of place and history.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Decolonising the English syllabus will only make it richer

Within the grand scheme of Anglophone culture, the privilege of a Cambridge English education provides urgent impetus to rethink what we have long held to be the best of what has been thought and said in English. With the measure of cultural distance I have been able to approach our texts, I’ve been able to see with some clarity the thorny entanglements of meaning, power, and oppression that continue to underpin the injustices we contend with today. Perhaps more encouragingly, it provides the thrilling opportunity to carve out new spaces in the contemporary canon, one that acknowledges the continuing global ramifications of the English language in ways we have not yet been able to conceive.

Amidst all of this, I will continue to wrestle against my tongue. I think back to my grandmother, of the bemused smiles with which she regards the grandchildren who mumble greetings in Korean and chatter in English. She has never been able to read the poems I’ve written about her

Sponsored links