11.28.2016

Mandarin as a Second Language


It sounds strange to say, but English is my second and only language.  As the child of Taiwanese-American immigrants, the first language I heard in the home was Taiwanese.  I grew up a hyphenated kid, hearing and speaking one language at home and another outside of home.  Since then, my Taiwanese has gotten so rusty I can hardly claim to be able to speak it.  So I am now a typical American, who speaks English and no other languages.


But hopefully not for long.  Since the end of summer, I’ve been doing a 30-minute Mandarin audio lesson just about every day.  By the end of the calendar year, I’ll have covered the equivalent of one year’s worth of Mandarin.  I would venture to say that by a year or two after that, I will be able to hold a reasonable conversation in a language besides English.

For much of my early childhood, my parents sent me to Mandarin school on Friday nights.  All of the other kids spoke Mandarin in the home so the teacher conducted classes in Mandarin.  Which wasn’t helpful for me, since I didn’t speak Mandarin.  What I’m trying to say is, that at the same time I was a straight A student during the day, I was the class flunkie on Friday night.  So while I have some base of knowledge (I even took two semesters in college, oh so many moons ago), I still have a ways to go.

I have been pleasantly surprised that, though my schedule is really busy, I’ve been able to squeeze my 30-minute lesson in just about every day for the past 2+ months.  Which is, I guess, the first thing I’ve gained from doing this, which is that every day is a little bit of a game to figure out whether, when, and how I will work this into my schedule.  Here are a few other reasons I’ve decided to make this time commitment:

1. For over a year, I’ve forced my kids to listen to these same audio lessons.  They are Asian and from Mandarin-speaking countries in Asia (Jada from China, Aaron from Taiwan), so it’s important for me that they know the language.  The least I can do is learn along with me. 

2. It may seem simplistic for folks to assume that because I’m Asian I speak Chinese; after all, I could be from a non-Chinese speaking country, or my family could’ve been in the US for long enough that English has long been the native and only tongue in the household.  Nevertheless, it is of some motivation that when people assume that or ask if I speak Mandarin, I will one day be able to say, “why yes.”

3. Knowing any tongue opens doors, both personal and professional, to more parts of the world.  And obviously Chinese is a particularly useful language to know, given China’s ascendance on the world stage.  So whether it is one day being able to conduct business in China or merely going there as a tourist, knowing the language will be a useful thing.

4. Going from knowing one language to more than one really opens up your mind.  Too many Americans only speak one language, and that’s a problem.  To use a peculiar sort of example which I will hopefully describe clearly, imagine a cat.  If all you know is English, you assume that that thing is, inherently, “cat.”  You realize other people use different words for it.  But, ultimately, its base definition is “cat.”   But that’s not true at all.  Rather, it’s a thing that we call “cat” in English” and “chat” in French and “gato” in Spanish and “mao” in Mandarin and so on and so forth.  Strange as it may seem, knowing more than one language reminds you that English is not the base language and the US is not the center of the universe.  And, practically, stumbling through my Mandarin lessons has given me newfound appreciation for folks in America who make do in English even though it is not their mother tongue. 

That’s a lot of gain, for just a 30-minute-a-day investment of time.  Sign me up.
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