From Noise to Words

I’ve been listening to a Mandarin AM radio station all morning. At home, my family has decided to take on the collective challenge of learning Mandarin. Learning Mandarin is one of the items on my to-do list that has been carried over for a couple of decades. So this year we decided to draw a line in the sand. Personally, I’ve always had a fear of foreign languages, which originated from doing poorly in high school French.

Growing up, English was the language spoken at home. The only time I heard Chinese for any length of time was when we made our weekly visit to my grandmother’s apartment in New York’s Chinatown. My mother would converse in Cantonese for the evening with her mother, while my brother and I ate Chinese take-out and watched Dallas. Listening to them catch up was like background noise; I heard them talking but it meant nothing to me. Years later I went on a foreign exchange program to Taiwan, which resulted in no Chinese learned since I was surrounded 24/7 by “bananas” and “Twinkies” like myself. The only cultural exchange I gained from that trip was my fascination with Chinese Americans who had bona fide Texas drawls.

But with adulthood comes a more serious effort. We have a plan. Listening to the radio is one of many ways we have introduced something unfamiliar into our routine. We are also reading books about Chinese culture and watching films in Mandarin. I am subscribed to the Chinese audio word of the day and must carve out some time in my schedule to practice characters. We are essentially creating an immersion program without leaving the house. My wife and elder son are enrolled in a Mandarin class on Saturday mornings, so they are already pulling ahead of me.

Whose idea was this anyway? It was mine. I hate that as Americans, we are not encouraged to learn languages other than English. I recently finished a book by Timothy Ferriss in which he says, “Quite aside from the fact that it is impossible to understand a culture without understanding its language, acquiring a new language makes you aware of your own language: Your own thoughts. . . . Gain a language and you gain a second lens through which to question and understand the world.” Plain and simple, I want that extra lens. If we fast forward a year to November 2010 and everything has gone according to plan, the voices I hear on this AM radio station will be translated by my brain into words, sentences, and conversation that I understand. Now that would be something!

I’d love to hear from those of you who are bi(tri/multi)lingual. Tell me how languages have opened doors for you. I’d also enjoy hearing from those who are also trying to learn a language later in life.

15 thoughts on “From Noise to Words”

  1. Reminds me of a joke:

    What do you call someone who speaks three languages?


    What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


    What do you call someone who speaks one langage?


  2. I too grew up speaking only English. But learning to speak more than one language (through years of classes and years overseas)has proved an invaluable asset to me as an author. When writing “Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs!,” for example, I let the sound and mood of the haiku I was translating inform my choice of words, not just in the English renderings of the poems but throughout the text of the biography on Issa. My latest book with audio CD, “Jazz Fly 2: The Jungle Pachanga,” (forthcoming from Tortuga Press, 2010) is narrated in a combination of English, Spanish and jazz. A couple weeks ago, while performing the piece live in S. Texas, every time I recited one of the lines in Spanish, the audience erupted in spontaneous clapping. I felt like a politician hitting one applause line after another!

    The point to introducing foreign words to one’s writing is to welcome the audience into a new world or mindset, or to acknowledge the mindset that readers already share. Sprinkling an English narrative with foreign words adds a certain worldliness that everyone can enjoy, especially when the foreign words don’t have a precise English equivalent.

  3. When I was little, we spoke Hungarian inside the house because my grandmother lived with us, and she didn’t speak English. She was also very hard of hearing, so we shouted in Hungarian. I thought this shouting was part of the language until my mother pointed out that I was hurting her ears. Speaking the language of my parents and grandparents has affected my life and my writing in a big way. I felt especially close to my grandmother. This is evident in so many of my stories. I could not have written Grandfather Counts, Goldfish and Chrysanthemums, or Shanghai Messenger if I had not been able to talk to my grandmother. Without a shared language, I would never have known her stories. We could not have recited Hungarian poems as we ate ice cream (fagy lalt in Hungarian) in her small apartment. I would not have learned the Hungarian nursery rhymes that I passed along to my own children. Here is my favorite one:
    Boci boci tarka
    se fule se farka
    oda megyunk lukni
    ahol cukort kupni.

    Bossy, bossy, the calf
    has no ears and no tail.
    We are going to live
    where we can get sugar.

    Sorry, I can’t make it rhyme in English!

  4. Yiddish died out in my family with my great-grandparents (the immigrant generation). In one case, my great-grandparents purposefully kept it as a language their children didn’t speak—when they wanted to talk to each other without the kids understanding, they used Yiddish.

  5. I was born and raised in Jersey City, NJ. So like many of today’s youth I felt that I had no need to learn or speak Spanish. As a kid I hated when my mom played her Latin music or watched novelas (Spanish soap aperas) en Telemundo. I realized that I had to learn Spanish when I was trying to communicate my then girlfriend’s parents whom didn’t speak English.
    I ended up marrying the girl and becoming “bilingual”. Which comes in handy when I’m talking to ESL students during school visits. Oh, I now do enjoy Latin music, but I still don’t like novelas from Telemundo.

  6. Knowing a second language definitely gives you another lens to look at the world with, and I think it’s something that really changes you as a person. For me, I feel like every culture is a room, and language is the door to get in. Without it you can still see in through the windows, but you can’t ever really BE in the room. When I learned Spanish I felt like things started to make sense to me in a different way because how people talk shows what’s important to them.

    Robert, I hear you on the telenovelas. I tried to watch a few to keep up my Spanish but I never could get into them. To be fair, I’m not a big fan of soap operas in English either!

  7. I think it’s important for everyone to keep passing down their culture and language to the future generations.
    I agree with you Hanna about soap operas in English too.

  8. My father grew up in Cash, Arkansas, population 313. He has always regretted never having the opportunity to learn another language when he was young. Over the years he has tried with French and Spanish and German, but never gotten past basic reading. Even though he is eighty-four, he is still working on his German now. Anyway, he passed on a desire for languages to me, and although I’ve let them lapse in recent years, I’m always surprised by the words and phrases that I can pull out.

  9. I think Chinese is much, much easier to learn than English. When I write a children’s book in English, I must put a Chinese/English dictionary in front of me. When I wrote Tofu Quilt, even though I wrote the first draft in English, I needed to write down some of the abstract thoughts in Chinese, then translate it into English again. That way the thoughts would come out better. I hope someday my English will be as advanced as my Chinese so I won’t need my husband to smooth out my English. If I write a Chinese story, I must read a long Chinese novel so my brain will get used to thinking the Chinese way again. Now, I must ask my friend, who was a Chinese literature graduate and still lives in Hong Kong, to read over my Chinese writing. By the way, I can’t speak or understand Mandarin. I can only speak Cantonese. I didn’t teach my sons Chinese. (They begged me not to speak Chinese with them because their friends laughed at them.) Now they only know a couple words, such as “No” or “I’m full.” It is my deepest regret that I didn’t teach them! Ironically, I was a seventh grade Chinese literature teacher for one year before coming to the United States.

  10. I spent five years overseas as an 8th – 12th grader, first in the Philippines, and then in Hong Kong. It was there that I began to study Spanish, French, and Cantonese. I later went on to major in Spanish and French in college with no idea how I would use those skills. I studied languages because I enjoyed them and was good at it. I guess something about the sounds of words and the idea of being able to communicate with others stayed with me. Many years after getting my BA, I went back to school to become a teacher. For years, I taught most of the day in Spanish. Eventually the laws in CA changed, and I don’t have many opportunities to speak Spanish anymore. But understanding the languages of others is an ongoing interest of mine and I have worked on my own to learn Italian so I could speak to people when I traveled there. I still have plans to study Japanese (and Mandarin, one day) so that when I travel to Asia, I can, at the very least, communicate in small ways.
    As a side note, I tend to think of my love of poetry and music as merely another aspect of my attraction to the sounds of language.

  11. I speak Spanish, English and French. I write in Spanish and English. When in Paris, I have often been asked how is it that I have no accent, that I speak like a native. Studies point to the fact that if you expose a child to a second language between the ages of 0 and 5 this child will have a near-native pronunciation even if he is not in contact with the second language for a number of years.

    When I was two-years old, my family lived in France during my father’s sabbatical year. There, my sister and I were cared for by a French lady while my parents studied. Upon my return to the island of Puerto Rico, where I was born and raised, I only heard French when my parents spoke among themselves so we wouldn’t understand.
    I ended up doing a masters in Graphic Arts in Paris, where I immersed myself in the French language and culture. I can honestly vouch for the theory than knowing the language gives you a truer perspective of the culture.
    I feel at ease in any country that speaks one of the three languages I know, and for that I am truly thankful.

    In the past 30 years that I have contributed to the Children’s Book field, time and again I have seen the importance of keeping the parent’s language and culture alive. It gives children roots, it opens doors. It is unfortunate that most public schools in the USA wait until the child is in middle school to offer a second language. At that point it is harder to learn.
    Young children are like sponges. I remember raising my girls bilingual by speaking ONLY Spanish at home. I remember my oldest daughter Verónica returning from preschool with stories that she would relate to me in English, the language in which she had lived her adventures. I remember patiently waiting and as soon as she had finished repeating in Spanish every thing she had related so she would learn the vocabulary she needed. I remember the day I caught Verónica doing the exact same thing I did with her, with her younger sister Alicia. I smiled.

    Now, because I raised her bilingual, Verónica is in a job at the National Gallery of Art, where she is called upon when dealing with Spanish speaking museums.

    It does pay to be patient. It pays to make the effort. I suspect your older son, Jason, will surpass you in Mandarin very quickly. I commend you for allowing him to reconnect with the roots of your ancestors. What a way to make his life that much richer.

    Languages open doors, horizons, and the world to young minds.

  12. Though both my parents came from the Yucatan in Mexico they met in New York City. They married and then I came along. We spoke only Spanish at home. Even after my mother learned English she could only speak to me in Spanish. So this was my first language, kitchen Spanish.

    Eventually we moved to Coney Island where I grew up. We were the only Spanish speaking family in the neighborhood.

    Once in school I heard other languages when I visited the homes of my classmates. There was Italian, Russian, Greek, Yiddish, German, Polish and Irish.

    I did take Spanish in high school but flunked because my teacher wanted me to be class president. I was too shy and just wanted to sit in the last row, last seat, and draw. This did not go over very well with my parents.

    For me Spanish is the entry to the memories of my childhood, the rhythms of the language, the music, and the passport to other cultures.

    When I write my books or visit schools I always have in mind that kid who went to first grade in P.S.80 in Coney Island.

  13. I am incredibly inspired by your comments. Thank you all for sharing your experiences. I know this is not going to be easy, but the payoff will be worth it. Xie xie (thanks) everyone!

  14. My daughter Emily who’s in 10th grade has been struggling in Spanish classes. She asked my wife and I to speak to her in Spanish at home. I think family can play an important roll in learning a new language or just keeping their native language alive with the young.

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