Content Warning: This article discusses instances of anti- Asian racism.
Weinberg second-year Sheena Tan has been all over the world.
She grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she attended a high school with a significant East Asian population. She spent time in South Korea the summer following her junior year and took a gap year in Germany after high school. At home, Tan speaks Chinese and English with her parents. In her travels, she picked up some Korean and German while also learning Spanish throughout high school and Japanese at Northwestern.
Because she spent most of her time in high school with Chinese or Korean people, Tan says she “naturally gravitated more toward that crowd” in college. A part of what ties them together, she says, is shared language.
“I think there is inherently something that connects you on a deeper level when you're able to speak in a language that you grew up hearing from the people that you love and the people that love you the most,” Tan says. “If you're able to speak in that language with other people that you call your friends, it makes things much more meaningful, and you become closer as a community.”
According to Northwestern associate professor of psychology Sid Horton, language plays a key role in developing social ties with others. More than transmitting information, language signals openness to creating a bond. Whether through heritage clubs or social gatherings, a common language helps establish community.
“Language is one of the most salient markers of cultural identity,” Horton says. “It's not the only one, of course, but it's very salient. When you're a speaker of a certain language, it definitely carries with it this idea that you're part of a larger community.”
For multilingual students, certain ideas, especially those intertwined with a specific culture, are easier to convey in a language other than English.
Weinberg first-year William Wang, who grew up in China with English as his first language, finds that some concepts are better communicated in Chinese.
“A lot of times it's not just a word, but some kind of experience — maybe a food or an event that's primarily tied to Chinese people,” Wang says. “If there's a Chinese food item, [my friends and I] will definitely say it in Chinese, just because we don't even know the English name for it.”
Wang is a member of Northwestern's Chinese Student Association (CSA), where Weinberg second-year Kaitlyn Shi serves as his mentor. Through Shi, he has connected with other CSA members.
“You don't meet each other because you're Chinese, but because it's part of you,” Wang says. “You're able to resonate a bit more often with each other sometimes.”
McCormick first-year Brighton Sibanda grew up in Zimbabwe speaking English, Zulu, Ndebele and Shona. He says that when he meets people who speak the same langauge, they often have shared experiences to discuss.
"There's music, there's food, practices, even religion that comes with the language,"Sibanda says. "If someone speaks to me in a certain language, there's automatically a very big list of things we can talk about."
Sibanda has met people who have lost proficiency in their native language, and he believes that, when people don't speak it with others enough, their link to their culture slowly decays. Speaking Shona everyday with friends helps him stay connected.
"If someone speaks to me in a certain language, there's automatically a very big list of things we can talk about."Brighton Sibanda, McCormick first-year
Although many multilingual students have found spaces on campus to celebrate their culture and speak languages other than English, some have felt othered at a mostly English-speaking institution. When a student encounters language barriers, cultural differences or racism, speaking a foreign language can be isolating.
Growing up in Istanbul, Turkey, Weinberg first-year Defne Deda always wanted to pursue higher education in the United States. Since coming to Northwestern, Deda has had to navigate a new social environment while simultaneously trying to translate her outgoing Turkish personality to English.
“In Theory of Knowledge back in high school, we learned that language is a way of knowing,” Deda says. “And I never fully understood that, I think, until coming here. Because I really do feel like one person in Turkish and another in English.”
Deda cited the mere-exposure effect as a source of disconnect between herself and her peers. According to the American Psychological Association, this principle describes “the finding that individuals show an increased preference (or liking) for a stimulus as a consequence of repeated exposure to that stimulus.” Deda says this phenomenon can help explain why people treat those who are most similar to themselves with a friendlier attitude.
At Northwestern, she feels that some students unconsciously reinforce their own biases by failing to diversify the circle of people they interact with.
“Even though people here appreciate diversity, I feel like diversity is a thing they enjoy in the occasional conversation,” Deda says. “In the long run, they don't pick that person as their friend, they just focus on that person's life as something to learn about and broaden their view. But then that person is left as a diversity object.”
Other students have experienced anxiety from speaking their language in certain spaces out of fear of the reaction that they might receive. Shi says that, when she's out with her friends, they sometimes decide to speak in English rather than Chinese.
“There have definitely been times in downtown Chicago or in Evanston, typically late at night, where I was like, 'Maybe we shouldn't speak predominantly in Chinese. My friend group has run into problems with people berating us on the street, telling us to go back to our country,” Shi says.
Tan recalls a conversation with her friends in which they discussed the impact of one's childhood environment on their perception of their identity.
“When you're younger, if you grew up in a majority white space versus a space where your identity is the majority, it's very different,” Tan says. “Because you don't feel as if you have to justify your ability to speak in a different language, you just can. An extension of that can often manifest in being ashamed of the fact that you are different.”
Tan adds that it can take years to heal from suppressing identity and language at a young age. Older Asian Americans, she says, will often encourage the younger generation to learn their language, as it will become a significant part of how they connect to others. Whether through food, similar upbringings or other shared experiences, Tan believes language links people together.
“The point of language is to be able to connect people to each other,” Tan says. “So not having that connection doesn't necessarily make you feel limited. But it is something that is a blessing when you are able to share it with somebody else.”