at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: language learning

Chinese. Language. Lessons.

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.

I Hereby Pronounce Thee Like a Foreigner

Somehow, in a bout of bad timing, I got quite out of language learning at just the time the internet made it ever easier to seek out other languages. Not only that, with the web there was (and is) even a community of people who define themselves as polyglots and language learners, who support and inspire each other – or brag and make a business of their language-learning ways, but at least still learn.

Me? I’d count two languages in which I’m fluent – and as we’ll see, that’s being put into question – and another… 7? 8? 9?  in which I’ve dabbled and feel like I’ve forgotten more than I ever learnt.

Not me, probably not you, hardly anyone of the great and fast language learners I’ve ever heard.

With all the forgetting and lack of practice/study, like so many others, I’ve been wondering if maybe I am just not all that good at languages. Or maybe, I was quite good at it, but only so much as to never have to invest the time and effort that really needs to be expended, and thus never sticking with it for long enough.

One particular problem that has been raising its ugly head ever more often – and that does not get mentioned all that often in such a direct way – is the strange attitude we find towards the speaking of other languages as/by a foreigner.

To Teach, But Not to Speak ‘Correctly’?

Then, there was the English teaching I did in Latvia: I enjoyed it, but I don’t sound like a native English speaker, even though this is a language I tend to use (certainly in writing) more than my first language, German.

With the German teaching in China, the (almost the same) usual problem applied: As an Austrian, you are a native speaker of German – but of its Austrian variant. Of course, there’s more of a difference between “High” German and some of the German dialects in Germany than between it and Austrian “High” German, but not coming from Germany raises some concerns.
This is particularly funny – and/or aggravating – because other Austrians tend to switch to a less-dialectal form when talking to me, assuming that maybe I can’t understand dialect because I don’t – and can’t really – speak it myself…

Now, having to take a pronunciation course as part of the (English) teacher training I have taken up again, getting feedback on my pronunciation – and having lived in China long enough to have had lots of experience with “getting the tones wrong” – the scale tips strongly in favor of “you just can’t sound right.”

To Learn – Or Not to…

Aside from the oft-wasted effort at remembering verb conjugations and such, it is pronunciation that makes you stand out like the obvious foreigner  and that is all-too-common an issue that makes people give up on other languages.

The challenge in learning another language is not only that the foreign language learner has to get his/her head – and tongue and jaw – around sounds which don’t exist in their first language. No, not only do other languages potentially sound barbaric in the original meaning of the word – a barbar being someone whose language sounded just like the supposedly ignorant (of e.g. Greek or even, already, Sanskrit and earlier Indo-European) and stammering “bar bar bar” sounds of others.
No, even when speaking the other, better language that is foreign to you, you may (probably will) still sound like the barbarian at the gates, butchering some sounds of it – unless you are one of those rather rare people who can master another language’s sounds completely.

Making yourself at home in this world does not necessarily require  that you know languages other than the one spoken in your surroundings (usually the one you grew up with), anyways; and even if you need or want to fit in somewhere else, or just simply want to be a part of the wider linguistic and cultural diversity  of this world, a non-native pronunciation will make it obvious that you are not – or “not really” – at home in that other area, that language.

Or so it seems.

What True Sound?

The funny thing is that native speakers need not sound truly “better” to not be called out on their pronunciation quite as much.

Of course, they do speak differently.
A foreign language speaker will probably be recognizably different from any native speaker, and thus stand out.
Native speakers, though… just go from Harlem to the Hamptons, from one social class to another, and people will sound different. Put a British speaker together with an Aussie and an American, and even if they all spoke “proper” English, it would be considerably different – not to even begin to think about an Indian or Nigerian who may have grown up with English as (one) first language but will sound rather different again. Wrong, even – unless, of course, you realize the context.

Where racism is strongly discouraged, linguistic discrimination is just normal, though.

“Just learn to speak properly.” There’s a difference between the two, of course, since you can learn better pronunciation and you may simply not be understandable if you get things wrong. There’s also a level where it becomes ridiculously stupid to discourage or get discouraged because of pronunciation differences, though – and we find that view, too.

After all, just go somewhere another language is spoken, see what the difference is between you only speaking your own first language and trying to find someone who speaks that, or you being there and speaking the language spoken there, even if somewhat badly…

Culturally Intelligent Language Attitudes

It’s just one of those (many) ways in which the world doesn’t necessarily subscribe to our desires – but to know more, live better, not get mired in stupidity (worst of all, the stupidity of our own resistance to doing things so we learn and live better), we’ll just have to deal with it and go on anyways…

Still, with languages, the contradictory attitude is quite perplexing, as well as problematic. You don’t sound like a native – whatever that would really sound like, given all its diversity – you are standing apart. At the same time, at least you speak the language, and if it is fluent and correct enough, it’s all well. Except when it’s not.

Cultural intelligence, in this context, seems to be something that arises best only when both parties in a communicative situation know the trouble with learning another language and thus agree to overlook the “barbaric” sound of an other in favor of communication.
For one person, one language learner, alone, there’s just one way to be culturally intelligent about it: give it your best, but don’t get concerned about a perfection that doesn’t really exist.

Funny thing in this context, to harken back to the online, paragon, language-learners:
They typically don’t even learn too much of the writing, just of the speaking. They typically define fluency not the way it’s officially done, but simply as being able to participate in a conversation over a longer time without totally lacking in words or understanding.
The pronunciation? Typically, obviously imperfect – but who cares when you managed to get to decent-enough conversations in a new language in three months, and it’s the tenth language you’ve tackled?

Of course, it won’t help me with my pronunciation-for-teachers course. That, too, has a funny side to it, though: there are so many teachers and teacher-training students who should have taken that course, but still don’t all sound “like a native” – and often enough, make enough other mistakes as well. It seems to be the very focus on perfection, which they then also transmit to their students, which keeps them from simply communicating as well – and typically, understandable – as they could, all for the self-consciousness caused by the constant nagging thought about their imperfect grasp of the language.

No native speaker has the perfect grasp of all of their language. That’s why we can tell what region of our own language area someone comes from and what social group they may belong to, and that’s the reason why children learn their first language for the longest time at school (and may still have more to learn if they go on to study a particular discipline and all its vocabulary and phraseology at university).

So, learn, communicate, make yourself uncomfortable – and get at home in this imperfect world, imperfect as you are. Just speak.

Language learning materials

How to Lose Fluency in 7 Languages in 3 Months

It’s so obvious as to be easy to forget, but language skill is a major factor in our feeling at home somewhere, and lack of it a major hindrance to supposed global citizenship.
Where you can’t make yourself understood without making yourself feel like an idiot, you are probably not going to feel quite at home. Where, on the other hand, everyone speaks just as you do, it’s easy to feel at ease.

So, for being at home in this world, it may be advisable to know more than just your mother tongue. In fact, having a different “father tongue” or speaking differently in a context other than the family is more commonly the case than may often be realized.

If you grow up in a country or region where one language is dominant, you may very well end up knowing only that language and hardly ever thinking anything much about it. If that dominant language is English, you may be in a particularly advantageous situation, because many (if not most) others around the world will try to speak your language.

Put in a multilingual context, it can be just as normal and natural to expect everyone to know more than one language. In fact, that may have been a rather common situation wherever trade was going on – and it is still the norm in many a place of higher linguistic diversity. Thus, chances are that you’ll have the advantage of growing up bi- or even multilingual.

Even in the English-speaking world – as imperfect an illustration as this may be – there are considerable differences in the ways that different “Englishes” are spoken. We think of it all as the English language, and it is not as diverse as to count as more than different varieties – but still, put an upper-crust Brit in a room with a New York cabbie, or a Scotsman together with a New England debutante (or Siri…), and communication might get a bit difficult – even though they all arguably speak the same language.

Language learning materialsLots has been written about language learning, in every which way. Recently, blogs by people who are studying a particular language, are or try to become polyglot, or have languages among the many things they learn as part of their personal development challenges, have become particularly popular. Even the New York Times got to the issue just recently.

I honestly have a problem with many of them.

In part, it is probably envy. I have learned something of several languages, probably enough to qualify me as a hyperpolyglot – if only I knew and remembered enough of them. But, I don’t.

It’s also a more serious issue, though. Not being a linguist studying languages professionally, not being a (full-time) student anymore, but living with a significant other, having a household to keep, lots of work to do, and the hustle for an income, there just isn’t much time and energy for the consistent practice that language learning (or even just simple maintenance of language skill) requires.

Thus, I find the blogs of people who make a living with their crazy language hacking, move to countries where the language they want to learn is spoken on a whim, and define their level of skill in whichever way they want, rather disingenuous.

It’s nice to see a passion for multilingualism (and I really hope I can get that back myself), but what I would really like to hear more about is how people who have a family and a day job (and one in which they are not surrounded by the languages they want to learn) manage to find the motivation and time.

Part-time studies and part-time work I last did in Latvia had left just enough time and energy to make it to Latvian and Russian courses, but not necessarily to enjoy them; the time in China should have given good reason to study the language more and better, but teaching German and doing freelance work (and finding a girlfriend who spoke very good English and German…) wasn’t exactly conducive to that, either.

We’ll see how things go now that I am (also) heading back to university to pick up the teacher training studies again… I certainly have been finding a bit of a fascination with languages again, still don’t like to hear that I should focus on only one, but won’t try to get good at several anymore, maybe all at the same time.

Funny thing with the forgetting, though: It goes quickly, but it’s all not completely erased from memory. Just, not quite accessible. Time to make the time to get it back.

Posts for Multilingual Mania

Just a little pointer to work I’ve been contributing to Multilingual Mania, writing about language learning (of course):

Not a Child Anymore” on whether children really have it easier in learning languages, to the point that it’s too good an excuse, or whether there’s something else to learn from it.

What Languages Do You Speak?” on the problem such a simple question can pose, and the deeper question of foreign language competence it raises.

What Multilingualism?,” considering how a polyglot is made, whether by accident of birth or by choosing – and by what sort of choosing.

Chinese Lessons on Language Learning” describing some of the observations about the local learning culture I’ve made during my time here in China.

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