Recently, Chinese has been in the news quite a bit as a newly popular language among foreign language learners. At least, in a way. Numbers of actual learners may have risen tremendously percentage-wise, but they are still small. No wonder, with Chinese being considered one of the hardest languages to learn.
Of course, that also makes it a language that the highly-gifted, greatly motivated, etc. want to know; preferably getting fluent in three months…
And so, as always, there will be the question of what you actually learn, what you put the emphasis in your learning on.
After all, early China scholars were able to read prolifically and discuss the finer points of grammar and philosophy, but often had had no direct exposure to the spoken language, and couldn’t really speak it.
Many modern language learners study Chinese to get by in China and brag about their skills, and consequently focus on the spoken language, but remain quite illiterate.
Even for one who can understand and speak, read and write, grasp of the language remains questionable.
There are finer points that will remain difficult to get – and how do you consider knowledge as sufficient when native Chinese language users will regularly have to look up how to write a character they don’t usually use?
Don’t fear heaven, don’t fear earth, only fear the foreigner speaking Chinese…
There’s that whole other layer to the language, though: In stark contrast to a language like German, let alone Spanish or, “worst” of all, English, Chinese is strongly connected with its ethnic roots and civilization.
The overlap is so strong that it often appears as if the expectation were that Chinese ability is somehow genetically predetermined: if you look Chinese enough, you are expected to be able to speak the language; and you are not fully Chinese if you are ethnically so, but don’t speak the language.
On the other hand, if you are a foreigner, your very ability to ever acquire the language is seen as limited (and obviously non-Chinese who know the Chinese language with native-like abilities are seen as rather wondrous phenomena.)
Together with the general ethnocentrism that one can often find in China, this makes for an often hard time – and a strange advantage: There is general amazement one should even try to learn the language, be able to pronounce some of it somewhat alright, that is motivating… as well as very embarrassing, especially once one gets to the point of realizing that something is still being mispronounced and consequently not really understandable, but probably gets commented on with high praises, anyways – and with the expectation of the praise being steadfastly refused, in just the Chinese fashion.
At the same time, the foreigner’s obvious outsider status runs alongside the perspective in which anyone who learns the language and attempts to fit into the culture is getting into the assimilative, civilizing, gravitational pull of the kingdom at the center, which makes for an easier time learning and remaining motivated.
So, it’s easy enough to not speak correctly and be difficult, if not impossible, to understand – but it also is not really expected of an obvious foreigner to speak perfectly. Thus, the pressure to achieve total native-like ability gets somewhat diffused by this expectation of imperfection. You’ll always, obviously, be a stranger anyways – yet, you can fit in quite a bit as long as you seek to speak the language and understand (and to quite an extent, submit to) the culture.
Contrast that to the attitude with “easier” languages and more closely related ethnicities, such as the American trying to speak Spanish or French, or the Southern or Eastern European immigrant to German-speaking countries. There, the attitude that arises immediately is that you, the other, aren’t all that different – so, why can’t you speak perfectly and properly? Immediately, just because there seem to be fewer obvious barriers, all differences gain even greater importance – even as they shouldn’t.
Perhaps, the comfortable feeling of belonging we all seek is making us truly stupid when it comes to intercultural (and multilingual) interaction. Sure, it would be comfortable to be seen as “one of them” in an ethnic and/or linguistic group that is an “other” to us – but the place apart, as dangerous as we know and instinctively feel it can be, is a position of power, of translation and bridge-building, as well.
So, learn languages, listen to foreigners with “strange accents,” be that stranger who is struggling to speak understandably, and learn to be happy with all the little progress towards a world that is less small-minded.
You can perhaps never be simply one of them in another culture – but really, you are not even yourself most of the time. Situations change, roles change, salient identities shift.
Add languages and intercultural situations, and – with a bit of training – your self will expand to encompass yet more.