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.