Not merely a mean of communication

Recently there’s this post on Stuff Asian People Like about Multilingualism and how Asians living in a western country are generally expected to speak at least two languages, one being their ancestors’ tongue. You should hop over for a read, great topic (admittedly, anything about languages is bound to grab my attention), well written post, and the comments are gold.

Here’s some of my thoughts on it:

Personally, I don’t mind people’s expectation of us (Asians living in another country) to be fluent in our mother tongue. Maybe it’s just me, and I’m a fanatic when it comes to language. But I say it’s a rather “good” expectation. It pushes us to learn.

And if you have the luck to be exposed to several different languages all at once, isn’t it a great opportunity to learn? Saves a lot on taking lessons. ) Also, in the case of recent immigrants, if you’ve already grown up with one language, it’s a shame to let it fade away. To me it’s like a precious asset. You should acquire new ones, but don’t lose the old one.

Each to their own, of course. But I admire people with good language skills. And by that I don’t only mean “people who speak many languages”, I also mean “people who may only know one language but is super good at it”. Either quantity or quality, it’s your call. And even better if you have both!

(Why pasted it again here? Because I’m so soaked in self-importance I just have to quote my own words, that’s why.)

Anyhoo, so after a string of comments, Shaun (the writer of the post) posed this question:

But from a practical point of view, wouldn’t it be far easier for international relations if we all spoke the same language? I suppose that’s why English has become so prominent in the past few decades.

And my answer to that is, Yes it’d be far easier. But it’d also become much more boring, unimaginative, repetitive, and FLAT. Because language is more than just a way to communicate. Hidden behind each and every word is a concept, a tradition, a culture, a lifestyle. Saying we ought to all speak English, to me, is like saying we should all dress in suits, eat bread, drive a Volvo, and sing “Yellow Submarine”.

Learning a language is learning a culture. Have you ever noticed how there are many words that simply cannot be translated from one language to another? There’s actually a half-baked entry in my Drafts box titled “Language as a concept”, I kid you not. One night I started writing it because I couldn’t wholly translate the word “nhường” in Vietnamese into in English without having to include at least 2 lines of explanation. It was giving me that much grief. It’s not simply “share”, or “divide”, or “give”, or “sacrifice”. It’s a combination of all those, with varying degrees of each. And frankly, if you’re not Vietnamese or are at least exceptionally fluent in the language, you’ll find it really hard to understand.

There’s another word that my sister and I discussed the other night, “hỗn”. It means being rude to someone older, or of a higher social standing, than you. So it’s partly “rude”, partly “insolent”, partly “disrespectful”. And to fully understand it, you’ll need to be aware of the Asian tradition to respect their elders. You’ll also need to know that in Vietnamese, there’s no simple “I” and “you” when adressing people, there’s a myriad of pronouns you have to use, depending on the age of the person you’re adressing and their relationship with you. And from the whinges I’ve heard from people who’ve tried to learn Vietnamese so far, that’s the hardest bit of all.

There’s also the vast treasure of phrases, expressions, and idioms that was cultivated through thousands of years and reflects a good chunk of a culture. For example, it takes a little bit of researching to know that forbidden apples do not grow inside Forbidden City and have nothing to do with poisoned apples. Or if a Vietnamese calls you “the frog sitting at the bottom of a well”, do NOT be flattered and wait for a princess to come and kiss you. Because they’re not likening you to the Frog Prince, they are instead referring to a saying that goes “Ếch ngồi đáy giếng coi trời bằng vung.” – “The frog sitting at the bottom of a well considers the sky as big as a lid (on a pot.)”

You could argue that learning too many tongues is rather useless. Well then, define “useful”. Why do we have to pop half of our brain cells learning the dates of so-called important historical events? What difference does it make that I know an acid neutralises a base? Does it put food on my table when, for some unfathomable reason, I know almost all the words to Britney Spears’s “Crazy”? (I know, can it get any lamer than that?!!)

I’ve yet to mention that honing your language skill also helps develop other parts of your brain, according to such and such scientific findings (I’m sure they’re out there somewhere, I just can’t be stuffed researching right now, sorry.)

I could go on all night. But my laptop is nearly out of battery. Plus, finding all those wiki links for y’all just cost me another half hour on unstoppable wiki-clicking. So I’ll just say it one more time, that hold on to whatever languages you know (and will learn), speak them and nourish them. They’re one of the very few important straits that differentiate us from animals.



4 thoughts on “Not merely a mean of communication

  1. I’d not expect an Asian person living in the UK to speak their “historic” tongue, though most do. I’d expect them to speak English as it’s the predominant language of the country they live in. I’d thus expect the same of someone from Poland, Russia, Bangladesh or even the US (though they really just need to learn to spell).

    Conversely I’d expect the same of a Brit heading to Thailand, or Korea or Spain or wherever long term. Learn the local lingo of wherever you’re going to settle.

  2. Mosh, I totally agree with you on that! When in Rome, well, speak Italian.
    So yup, I’d expect a non-English speaker living in an English speaking country to be very fluent in the language.
    One of the many things that bug me is that in Australia, you can choose to learn & take the driving theory test in Vietnamese and other languages. Granted, for older people it’s much harder to learn a new tongue. But still, if you learn the road rules in one language, and go out on the road and see another, how the hell does that work?

    On the other hand, I think letting go of your original language is such a huge waste. And in situations where the children don’t get the parents’ jokes and vice versa, it’s also a pity. But then again, I’m just over ambitious and later when I have kids, chances are it’s gonna be the same dilemma in our family.

    Your other point is also another topic I’ve planned to rant about. That is how many English speakers automatically and arrogantly expect everyone, everywhere to speak English. Don’t get me wrong, I love English and the fact that it’s become so much more prominent and brought the world closer, so to speak.
    But still, I’m particularly peeved at the way some travelers say “Geez, they don’t even speak a word of English over there!” and make it sound like that particular country / town is so uneducated, underdeveloped and backward that they don’t care to forgo their own language and jump on the English speaking bandwagon.

  3. Hey Amy,

    It’s nice to see my post grabbed your attention. Languages are a particular topic of interest to me as well. (that’s why I wrote the piece, I suppose).

    As for my comment there, I do tend to agree with you that it’d be a waste for us to forget the languages of our ancestors, but from a international point of view, it really is critical that English spreads throughout the world (which it is). Since globalization and international trade is becoming more and more prominent, we need a way in which the world can communicate with each other, that’s where English comes in.

    Funny thing actually, I’m going to Shanghai as part of a uni program that occurs over the summer. I booked a flight with a friend on China Eastern (not our choice, to be sure). My dad was initially quite worried because he’d heard some bad things from them. The deal is that all pilots must know English, for obvious reasons. I mean, if a Chinese airline is going to a country like Brazil, how will they communicate when reaching the landing strip? Therefore English is a critical working language. Apparently “in theory” the China Eastern pilots know English, but “in practice… well that’s another story. That’s just but one example…

    My case is especially interesting. I don’t mind saying it here because it’s far less “public” here than on SAPL. You might know I’m also a fellow Melbournian with you. My dad is Malaysian-Chinese and my mum is Singaporean-Chinese. I’ve lived my entire life here and in various parts of New Zealand. Key thing with my parents is that they speak DIFFERENT DIALECTS of Chinese. Mum speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, and Dad speaks Hokkien and Malay. So they have communicated in English to each other and with me and my siblings all our lives. Mandarin is my “2nd language” and it’s ordinary at best. I know it’s a shame, but that’s the way we were brought up. But hey, I’m going to China over the summer, so hopefully my Chinese can improve.

    As for knowing all the lyrics to that Britney Spears song… yeah, does get much sadder than that 😉

    Hmm I seem to be making long rants more and more recently…

  4. hey Shaun,

    thanks for harking back 🙂 Yeah, as I said before, I’m all for the ever increasing popularity of English. I’m just not supportive of our mother-tongues fading away that’s all. Greedy? you bet.

    When I was saying it’s a waste, I had in mind people with similar backgrounds to mine, i.e. having grown up with one language, then went abroad and started to learn another. It’s slightly different in your case because your parents don’t speak the same language, and you were born & have lived most of your life in an English speaking country. Singapore’s official language is English anyway. And I’ve noticed that it’s just as popular in Malaysia. One of my Uni friends was Indian Singaporean and her only language is English.
    A friend of mine (Vietnamese Australian) married a Dutch Australian guy, and although the “dream” is for their kids to grow up speaking 3 languages, everyone knows it’s a rather slim chance.

    Having said all that, I guess it’s just language fanatics like ourselves who agonise over what tongue we can, and can’t speak. 🙂 That’d explain your “guilt” about not being able to speak impeccable Chinese. And my guilt for not writing in Vietnamese often enough.

    Anyhoo, Shanghai’s a great city. You’d love it. And China Eastern isn’t too bad. I flew with them 2 years ago on some domestic flights. And I’m sure your Chinese will be so much better after this summer. Even MY Chinese got better after a few weeks there, and I knew only 3 lines , if that. One being “I can’t speak Chinese” of course. haha But in the end I could even haggle at the market. 🙂

    have a fantastic trip!

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