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1 Introduction Bilingual Personhood and the Cultural Politics of Asian American and Latino Literature “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.1 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.”2 In the 2010 publication, however, he Introduction 2 revises this conclusion after tracking the US census data since 1976 on people who speak a language other than English at home: 11 percent of the population in 1980, 14 percent in 1990, and almost 18 percent in 2000.3 Cross-referencing these numbers with the self-reports on English fluency that are also a part of the census data, Grosjean concludes that depending on whether one includes those with limited English fluency in the category of bilinguals or not, the bilingual population in the United States in 2000 ranges from 13.71 percent to almost 17 percent.4 While the numbers are still small compared to European countries, Grosjean suggests that his initial assessment of the United States as a monolingual country may not be so valid any more. If one still hears a ring of truth in the joke despite Grosjean’s recent findings about the changes to US lingual culture, this probably speaks to how new the recognition of bilingualism as a socially significant phenomenon is in the United States. In the same study, Grosjean also details which non-English languages have the largest numbers of speakers. Unsurprisingly, Spanish tops the list. But Grosjean also notes that “several Asian languages (Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese )” are on the list of the top ten non-English languages.5 This, he further adds, is a change from the mid-twentieth century. These Asian languages have replaced languages such as Yiddish and the Scandinavian languages on the list of the top ten.6 While it is impossible to map a direct, one-to-one correspondence between this change and the changes in demographics due to the liberalization of immigration , anyone who is familiar with the effects of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act would notice the connections between the rise of immigration from Asia and Latin America and the shifting linguistic habitus of the United States discussed by Grosjean.7 The premise of this study is that the growth of Asian American and Latino communities since 1965 is the driving force behind the steady shift in US linguistic habitus away from monolingualism. In light of this shift, I turn to writings by Asian Americans and Latinos to trace how the social changes accompanying the new bilingualism affect cultural representations of language difference and how, vice versa, cultural representations engage with the social lives of language minorities. Throughout the study, I seek to construct a dialogic relationship between the social significance of bilingualism and its cultural ramifications. The focus of this study, then, is not just to trace the role that Asian American and Latino writers play Introduction 3 in conceptualizing and illustrating the cultural consequences to the changes in America’s linguistic habitus but, more importantly, to examine literature...


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