Your Nationality and the Turing Test

A boy who is waiting to greet U.S. Secretary of State Clinton at the National Museum makes a face while holding the U.S. and Chinese flags in Beijing

Ever since I came to America, a lot of thoughts have crossed my mind. One of them is concerning true nationality.

America is probably one of the most diverse societies in the world. Sure, China has a lot of minority groups but they’re all basically East Asian(in terms of race) and they all come from geographically close areas. Compared to that, America is a huge amalgamation of people from all places, and of all races that is known to humankind.

To  someone who comes from a place where 99% of the population is East Asian and of Korean ancestry, America’s diversity is always a cultural shock and an object of envy. Most of Americans speak English perfectly. But where do many immigrants fit in?

While some immigrants lose their original nationality in a few generations, some families choose to keep them. Such is the case with many Asian Americans, as I see it. I’ve been to Chinatowns and visited many asian households in the US, and they all remarkably retain the environment of the mainland. Yet most of Asian Americans I see here see themselves as American, a lot of them cannot even speak their native languages.

What constitutes a nationality, then? If you’re perfectly comfortable with Korean, but is not Asian, would you be able to fit in the Korean society? What is American and what is French? Can you be French if you’re white and perfectly fluent in French?

I propose something: why don’t we take turing tests–of your nationality? Let’s try a thought experiment.


Turing test is a thought experiment proposed by Alan Turing, which involves a human and a compute behind walls, both trying to convince someone into believing that one is the REAL human.

The “Nationality Turing Test” is largely based on one’s linguistic ability, not on physical or biological appearance.  I believe language should define one’s nationality–because language does not only involves a large vocabulary, but also culture. Even if you know every single English word and know how to use them, you would sound different. With all the idioms, new internet words and culture-exclusive jokes, a language can encompass a vast area of a country’s culture.

We’ll use Chinese-American identity as an example, since they take up the largest Asian population in America and they remarkably reproduce their own culture there through strong communities.  Put an American, let’s say she can speak Chinese, behind one wall, and a native Chinese person in the other. Let another Chineseperson–let’s say, a male–pass notes to people in the two rooms. If  he cannot tell the difference between two people, and consideres both as equally Chinese, wouldn’t that make the American qualify to be Chinese? Some might oppose to this, saying that anyone can learn a language through enough work. However, sounding perfectly like a native involves understanding all the culture-exclusive jokes and phrases, and it’s hardly something that you can study.

Yet in this experiment there is a huge problem that cannot go unnoticed: should we include perfect accent as a requirement? Would “speaking perfectly like a Chinese” necessarily involve “sounding” like a Chinese? Should we not proceed the Turing test through passed notes, but instead through real voices?

This is debatable. Accent is something that cannot be acquired easily in a foreign land, and if included as a requirement, would significantly reduce the amount of people who qualify as Chinese. In fact, in order to sound like a native you would have to be BORN there.

My answer to this is that it depends on what nationality you are testing for. I know it sounds so pathetically agnostic, but the truth is that all languages and nationalities are constituted differently. In Korea, there is only one single accent, only used by Koreans. The “Korean” accent is a crucial part of the language’s identity, since there cannot be any other pronunciation. Any other accent than a Korean one would instantly reveal that you are a foreigner. The same goes for region-exclusive languages such as Japanese, Swedish or tribal languages. On the other hand, the case is different for many international languages such as English, Spanish, Arabic or Swahili. In this case, the “wording” itself gets more important than how it sounds, and having a different accent than more popular ones would not make your “language” wrong.

The potential application of the Turing Test is just massive. Maybe the American immigration office could take turing tests for American Citizenship, instead of putting them in a lottery.

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