Unsexy Languages


你好 (ni hao!)

A few weeks ago, I started learning Mandarin. I work with mostly international students from China, and it was about time. I'd been avoiding the inevitable for years, studying just about every other language but Mandarin. When an offer to learn for free landed in my lap, I no longer had an excuse. If I want to better empathize with and understand the students I am working with, I need to make an effort to understand where they're coming from. To oversimplify the enormity of language's impact, it affects the way we recall memories, the order in which we think, the way we describe colors, emotions, and gender, and the way we conceptualize time. For a native English speaker, Chinese is like taking our way of conceptualizing language and throwing it in a blender. None of it crosses over. There are no false cognates, very few borrowed words, no shared alphabets. 

I take up Chinese with the same intensity that one might apply to a new exercise program, hoping that my dedication does not wane. I wake up each morning and replay mnemonics in my head, imagining Chinese characters into things I might remember later: tiao is two people dancing, wuo, the word for "I/we" looks a lot like someone punching someone else in the face, and li, well the character for li looks nothing like a pear so my system doesn't always work. The app that teaches me Chinese has a panda avatar to guide me through each module. In one game, I must match characters and sounds by placing the bamboo in the appropriate basket. It all seems to pander to American stereotypes about China. All we know is that they have pandas, dumplings, and bamboo, apparently. I wonder, do Chinese students learn English on apps where they catch flying hamburgers and are guided by an avatar in flip flops and a college hoodie? 

Every week in my Chinese class, we drink tea in a traditional tea set and we eat our microwaved leftovers out of Tupperwares during our lunch hour. I have a positive association with Chinese now. I have caffeine and food every time I study it, and I'm hoping that will keep me going. Perhaps it is enough to convince me that Chinese is a sexy language to learn, because my brain is always clamoring for me to learn a new language, and I can never decide which one. 

I love languages. I've studied Spanish and French off and on throughout the years, and failed epically at sticking with Arabic, Polish, and Japanese. But for some reason, learning Mandarin never appealed to me. I had no desire to go to China. But the truth is I don't have a damn clue why this is the case.

I'm unpacking why we gravitate towards some languages and cultures, and not others. What makes us think a language or culture is cool? I think it goes deeper than a language sounding pretty, to how much we want to understand a culture. Most people who love languages don't always go into it with a utilitarian perspective. We admire languages for the ways they change our thinking. For me, I love how language feels like a code, and then it clicks into place, and you begin thinking and dreaming in that language. You no longer need to translate in your head because it is a part of you, and it gives you a new alter ego of sorts.

Let's start with Spanish, a language that's assumed to be easy for native English speakers. When I was a kid, Spanish or French were basically your only two foreign language options. I studied Spanish from middle school all the way through college, suffering through wasted hours of watching Mean Girls with Spanish subtitles and Quinceañera at least three separate times. I don't think I truly learned any useful Spanish until I got to college. But I fell in love with it because it was my gateway to Spain, and in turn to Europe. In the Eurocentrism of most high school Spanish, I was only taught to give a shit about Spain. I hadn't been taught a damn thing about Central or South America, except that little girls got into poofy dresses and had fancy sweet fifteens instead of sweet sixteens. I was wooed by castanets and paella and flamenco instead.

I became motivated to take French my senior year of college after a debacle in France where I got stranded in a small village outside of Paris, kicked out of the local airport after missing my flight, and had to mime with the local hostel receptionist to convey that I was stranded and needed a way out of there. I thought that French would be an easy stepping stone from Spanish, and it was. Maybe a little too easy. My Spanish and French classes were back-to-back, and I often rolled into class speaking my own special brand of Sprench, saying things like "je veux un sandwich de mariscos" or something weird like that (even the French word for seafood, "fruits de mer" sounds way sexier than it should). 

Arabic became of interest to me after falling for Moroccan culture, and a Moroccan man. That didn't pan out, and neither did this language endeavor. I spent an entire summer learning characters that I would forget in half the time it took me to learn them. All I remember is "al kitaab," which means book. Because y'know, for me a book is right up there with food and water on the list of things I'd need for survival.

Then we turn to Polish. This is the language I grew up with, always just out of arm's reach. I needed to connect with my heritage, and I have a desperate desire to not look hopeless whenever I next return to Poland, unable to say much more than "thank you" and "hello." But Polish is basically a cornucopia of consonants that I can only parrot back. The conjugation and pluralization does not fit together for me, and I find myself compelled to learn it only to search for a piece of family heritage that I've lost, and one that I cannot find by practicing the language in isolation. With my grandparents gone, the power of the language has lost some of its hold over me. 

And Japanese? As one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn (it has three different writing systems), I wanted a challenge. I also knew I would be going to Japan, and I ended up studying it in a frenetic 13-hour cram session on the plane ride over. 

I've stayed committed to some of these languages and not others, but all of them are languages that I was very enthusiastic about. So why was I so apathetic about learning Chinese? Most of the students I work with are Chinese, and it would be a vital skill for my job. Perhaps it was just how Chinese sounded. Or maybe I just don't feel the same adrenaline rush about dumplings that I do about baguettes or tortilla española. Or maybe it's none of these things, and I just literally don't know a damn thing about China. 

The thing is, once I started, I was hooked. I learned all sorts of fun things. For example, our Chinese instructor taught us that the reason Mandarin speakers seem to always be shouting at each other is so that they can hear the correct tone. I also learned that there are certain phrases that they teach to tourists that no one else actually uses. And most fascinating of all, in its absence of gender, Chinese is playing with both its past and its future--the erasure of gender, once an act of excluding women from society, is now used to acknowledge that gender is complex and non-binary. 

I've learned to deeply appreciate Chinese for how much it forces me to rely on my ear for pitch. I imagine musicians would excel at Chinese, or at least, be able to better distinguish the five tones of Chinese. When I think of Chinese as a series of notes, it instantly transforms the language into something more noble and beautiful.

And at the end of the day, I think that's what compels us to think one language is sexier than another. It goes deeper than how it sounds to how it makes us feel when we are learning it. I went into learning Polish expecting to find a piece of my soul, but my expectations fell short. I went into Chinese expecting nothing, and found a surprising connection to a piece of me that I'd forgotten: the part of me that used to play music, and the part of me that used to write poetry. If poetry is a song without music, then Chinese is both poetry and art. The word for "pear" might not look like a pear, but it definitely is beautiful and complex, and it intrigues me trying to think of how I will remember these strokes and associate them with this particular fruit. 

Want to take a stab at it? Let's use Chinese characters as our own Rorschach test.

Here's the character for "I." Do you see the person being punched in the face? 我

And here's the character for pear. What does it look like to you? 梨