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A Rhizomic account of heritage language

Dr. E.K. Tan & Dr. Agnes He

This chapter evaluates how two types of migration, settler migration and (im)migration, respectively reshape the heritage languages and identities of Sinophone communities in Singapore and the United States. The major wave of settler migration from China to Singapore happened between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, making Chinese the majority population on the island.  Chinese heritage languages and cultures defined distinctively by dialect groups and clans encountered various challenges: first, the vernacularization of modern Chinese language spawned by the May Fourth Movement in China directly impacted the promotion of a Chinese heritage in Singapore centered on Mandarin, the official language; second, the post-Independence implementation of the bilingual policy in the mid-1960 and the inauguration of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979, officially reduced Chinese heritage languages in Singapore to only Mandarin by phasing out the use of dialects. In the United States, (im)migration from China occurred in both large (coolie/labor migration) and smaller scales (student and capitalist immigration). Early labor migrants from China were predominantly Cantonese-speaking groups from Southeastern China with a distinct heritage language and culture they brought with them to the host country. Chinese immigrants who arrived in the United States since the mid-1900s are from Greater China (Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and Macau) and Southeast Asia. This influx of Chinese immigrants from diverse locales has brought about a complex, yet exciting variety of heritage languages and cultures. Instead of seeing this as a contamination of a standard Chinese heritage, we examine this rhizomic multiplicity (Gilles Deleuze) of language variance, alongside the study of heritage language evolution in Sinophone Singapore, to map out a network of overlapping relations (Édouard Glissant) among Chinese diasporic communities in both places. We aim to highlight Chinese diasporic experiences of heritage language maintenance as distinct due to difference migratory patterns and socio-political conditions by not conflating them into one hegemonic representation.