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.