Thursday, November 12, 2009

On language

Among the things I am proud of is the fact that I am fully bilingual in English, my first language, and (Mandarin) Chinese. And one of the ways I achieved bilingualism, along the way, was full immersion - throwing myself into the language wholesale, until at one point there were several years where I couldn't climb a flight of stairs without counting them off in Chinese, counting forward on my way up and backward on my way down. That was how I taught myself facility with numbers in Chinese. This meant not just thinking in Chinese as much as possible (I still dream in Chinese now and again, and I once had a roommate who claimed I spoke Chinese in my sleep, though I'm still not sure how she'd know), but also trying to get into the mindset behind idiomatic Chinese - not just thinking *in* Chinese, but thinking *like* Chinese, as it were.

But as I get older, I am less and less willing to throw myself into a culture and a mindset like this. Having as I do some rudimentary anthropological training, I am more and more aware of the weirdness of even claiming to be engaged in "total cultural immersion." I think part of the price of becoming bilingual the first time was a certain amount of self-othering, and I'm less and less willing to engage further in it. For this reason, I don't expect ever to become as proficient in a third language, although I continue to learn and use them, especially Japanese, German, and Hebrew. There is unlikely to be another moment in my life when I can dedicate so much headspace to language - although learning languages is one of my favorite things to do, and I sometimes wish I could do it again.

The other thing holding me back, oddly enough, is my deep and pervasive love for the English language. I delight in English, with its overstuffed vocabulary and ridiculous spelling conventions. My work requires a lot of writing and speaking, and I relish the time I spend wrangling words, sometimes more than I do the content of the words I'm wrangling. I love to read and speak Chinese, but so too do I love to read and speak English. I suspect sometimes that one of the things holding me back from pursuing further language study is an unwillingness to relinquish my deep engagement with English for the time it would take. I'm not exactly proud of this, but it's an interesting thing to realize about oneself.

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