I am often asked why I decided to learn Chinese, why I’m just so into it, and why I like foreign languages so much. The answer is simply that I fell into these studies arbitrarily, the result of a desire to expand my boundaries beyond the required four years of high school French. I undertook the study of Mandarin because I wanted to spread my wings, do something different, something that might add some umami to the familiar seasonings of my life.
And it did add a new flavor to things. I delighted in formulating my thoughts into different grammatical structures and sentence patterns that one just doesn’t see in English or romance languages, I loved the musicality of the tones, and I wholeheartedly embraced the challenge of memorizing characters, trying to visualize them and their little root pictures, known as radicals, in my head before going to bed at night.
But these humble beginnings are not where my love for the language truly stems from. Rather, my love, unfiltered and pure, for this language lies in the friendships I’ve made along this journey to fluency, as well as the isolated, special moments in time I’ve spent with others along the same path while using our target language. When I use Mandarin, I am harkened back to the times I spent laughing in class while joking about pandas in first year Chinese as a freshman in college; when I hear the song “Fragrance of Rice” by Jay Chou, a song that helped me get better at the language, or when I hear some of the words used in that song out of context, I am immediately transported back to the golden summer I spent in 2018 at Middlebury’s Chinese school, where I made one of the best friends of my life and who first taught me the song; when I write a chengyu, or four-character expression, on an exam, I remember the teacher that taught it to me and how much I cared about that teacher.
Speaking Mandarin now, for me, is inextricably linked from the powerful feelings of friendship and love I possess for the people in my past and present whom I’ve found here and there along this path to language acquisition and who have helped me get better and better at Mandarin– little hidden gems that light up my life. And, as we are all defined in part by those around us and by those we’ve known, so am I thus defined by my studies of Mandarin. It is a part of me, a part of my heart.
Why did studying Chinese, and more generally, why does studying a foreign language seem to generate such profound friendships and relationships? Was it just my isolated experience? Or do others feel the same way with regard to languages?
My opinion is that studying foreign languages can feel so deep and beautiful because building up to fluency from zero is one of the most rewarding things a person can experience, and because of the camaraderie and humbleness the process itself necessitates. You begin knowing nothing, and to get good, you simply have to start speaking a lot, and for a while you sound absolutely stupid due to your deficiency in vocabulary and grammar. The process requires you to laugh at yourself and your classmates and to love every step of the journey, rather than simply focusing on the end goal of fluency.
And it’s absolutely amazing to look back at it all, all the friendships and laughter and words floating around in your head, and, unlike with your mother tongue, to know the entire history of a whole system you use to speak.