Speaking or being Chinese : the case of South African-born Chinese

18 Apr 2016

Language is often seen as an important symbol and marker of identity. The relationship between the two especially comes to the fore in the experience of immigrants who often must negotiate competing pressures on their identities and language usage. In this article we examine the link between language and identity through an exploration of the lived experiences of four Chinese individuals in South Africa. Drawing on interview data, we examine their language and identity shifts and the factors driving such shifts (or lack thereof). Our analysis reveals multiple degrees and expressions of Chinese identity, of which language is sometimes but not always relevant. We find that social and historical contexts shape the needs and motivations of the individual, who often uses language strategically and flexibly to emphasise or understate particular identities. We conclude that the situational view of the language-identity relation is more appropriate to explain the weak and strong language-identity links that occur at the micro-level.