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A Multivocal Self

Growing up in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese

Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.

Multilinguals are fascinating and have been the object of a few posts already on this blog (see here and here). Today, Dr. Julie Choi of the University of Melbourne, very kindly answers our questions concerning the recent book she has published on her own multilingualism.

Would you please introduce yourself to our readers and say a few words about yourself and your languages?

I am a lecturer in Education specializing in English language teacher education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia. I was born and raised in New York, living largely within a Korean-American community and speaking Korean (with my family), English (in school) and Konglish, that is, Korean filled with English loanwords, with other Korean-American friends. I left New York some time ago and I don’t quite see myself as American nor do I necessarily think of myself as Korean even though this is my ancestral background and I have strong familial ties to Korean.

I have spent equal numbers of years in Beijing and Tokyo being completely immersed in the languages and local and expat cultures but I never felt that I developed a meaningful identity in Chinese as I did in Japanese. My Korean acquaintances gasp in horror when I say this but my Japanese is much more fluent and ‘grown-up’ than my Korean in all of the macro skill areas because I learned it formally in school and through work. I have a history in all of these labels, languages and places, but I don't have any strong attachments to any of them.

What prompted you to write a book about your own multilingualism?

I’ve been keeping a diary since I was a little girl. When I started working on my Master’s thesis, I found research related to growing up in multiple languages. What researchers could see and say about their participants’ multilingual identities was fascinating, rich and valuable for me to read as a grad student but I felt there was a gap – I wanted to hear how multilinguals themselves make sense of their lives through research practices. I wondered how one would do that kind of work in academia.

So I started to piece entries together in my Master’s thesis using narrative methods. At the end of that journey I was left with many more questions about diaries, materials that kept falling out of the diaries (e.g. letters, pictures, cards, teachers’ notes etc.), and how we come to make sense of our linguistic and cultural identities and realities. I wanted to rewrite my thesis (my life) with more critical insights so I decided to continue pursuing this area further in a PhD using autoethnography. The product of this 10-year journey is this book.

You begin your book with a fascinating story of the many names you had in English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. Do all of these names refer to the same person?

I think they do, although the people using these names may have a very particular view of me. For instance, my name Juri when used by my family embodies me with my position and history as the youngest sister, daughter, cousin, etc. For my Japanese friends, my name is associated with being their Korean-American friend who speaks Japanese and teaches English. My Chinese name Zhu Li is used by my school teachers who see me as a Korean-American student and by my Chinese students who see me as their Korean-American teacher who speaks Chinese.

In English, I only respond to the name Julie. My birth name, Juria, is so foreign to me. I get annoyed when people try to call me by this (when I have told them I don't respond to it!). I could get rid of all the ambiguity by just changing my name to Julie legally but I can’t quite bring myself to that (yet) either. I quite like living in the ambiguity of it all. It makes me stop and think about the ‘cracks’ in multilingual lives.

One of the dominant themes in your book is your sense of vulnerability, foreignness and displacement. Do you regret being multilingual or do the pros outweigh the cons?

I think I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today but none of the things I value today would have been possible without my multilingual foundations. My interests, work and the connections I have made with particular friends and colleagues have all been made possible to me through this inherent multilingual and transnational configuration.

The process of writing my autoethnography and unpacking all of those histories helped me to see what can emerge from within those feelings of vulnerability if one channels them in healthy directions. So I now understand the kinds of vulnerabilities I went through and am going through as being necessary conditions for who I have, and can continue to, become.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of writing this book?

At some point in the research-writing process, I came to see myself as no longer concerned (or constrained?) by the label ‘multilingual’. I became more interested in the historical, political, ideological, social and cultural embodiment of the languages in my repertoire, the care and ethics I wanted to convey in my writing and how to package this all together into a scholarly voice that I was comfortable with. So in a sense I started sensing a shift from a ‘multilingual’ to a ‘multivocal self’. It sounds corny but I felt liberated in so many respects. This was a radical shift for me.

What does your multilingual life look like these days?

My whole world revolves around teaching and learning these days so even though I don't do anything special to maintain my other languages, I engage with the languages of my students, and future teachers. Together, we produce classroom activities that bring other languages to the fore in the English language classrooms.

I like being away from the pressure of having to “speak” or perform in any one language for extended periods of time. I like listening to others about their multilingualism and exchanging bits and pieces of different languages in conversations. Australia is a really great environment for this kind of playfulness and relaxed attitude towards multiple language usage.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo courtesy of Julie Choi.


Choi, J. (2017). Creating a multivocal self: Autoethnography as method. New York/London: Routledge.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.

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