All posts tagged: language

More Than A Name

In the winter of 2014, my sister and I took a photo of my dad posing under a street sign. We were visiting Hong Kong and, after alighting the ferry on Hong Kong Island, we found ourselves stepping onto ‘Man Kwong Street’. It was one of the most brilliant things I had ever seen. It had my name in it. After a lifetime of carrying a frequently unpronounceable, misspelt, nowhere-to-be-seen surname in England, there it was, common as muck on a street sign. It was only when I moved to Hong Kong that I realised that the novelty I’d experienced back then had occurred simply because I’d only seen my name on a sign that one time. A few months after moving here, I no longer delighted in seeing my name on street signs, nor above shops, or bus stops, or the numerous other places I spotted it. Locking eyes with a Kwong Wah tool shop or a Chee Kwong restaurant caused a slew of guilt and embarrassment to slope down through my chest like …

Language Swap

In Hong Kong, as a learner of the native language, I spend a large portion of my time attempting to listen to (read: eavesdrop) and converse with locals in Cantonese. My goal is to, one day, be able to think in the language, rather than go through the rigmarole of making slow mental translations and then carefully laying out each word like I’m taking an oath. While nowhere near fully developed, this new tongue is gradually taking some kind of shape. Yet, I was still dumbfounded in April when I arrived at a hotel in Bali and thanked the driver in Cantonese. The words flew, unbridled, out of my mouth with the exact casualness that I yearn for when I’m forcing out broken statements in my daily Hong Kong life. Just like that, no conscious connecting of synapses required. In that moment, pride (admittedly polluted with the faint waft of smugness) emanated from my every pore. Mini triumph celebrated, I had no choice but to sedate the Cantonese if I was to remember that I …

Search For My Tongue

I’m in year 10 poetry class, and we’re discussing Sujata Bhatt’s Search For My Tongue. In it, she details her fear of losing the ability to speak in her native language, and struggles to see how the two languages she knows can co-exist in her brain. Just as we reach the part about the poet dreaming in her mother tongue, our teacher, Mrs Garcia, looks up from her book and asks if any of us can speak a second language. A group of hands make swift draughts in the air. She zigzags between them, smiling and nodding enthusiastically as they answer. German, Punjabi, French. I do not raise my hand, because I can only speak English. She calls my name anyway. “Don’t you speak another language?” She asks, the question more a declaration than an interrogative. I shake my head. “Where are your parents from?” She tries. I tell her my dad is from Hong Kong. She nods in relief, her question now justified. “But you don’t speak another language?” She pushes, her thin wire-framed …

Being English Abroad

There are very few places or situations that English people (that is, native English speakers) can’t deal with or work around. This makes us lucky – but it also makes us lazy. The lack of necessity means that most of us don’t even think about learning another language. English is the second most spoken language in the world but is considered to be the planet’s lingua franca and according to the New Scientist, even predicted to be the language we will one day all speak (thanks to English similects developing around the world), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn certain words in a foreign language out of respect and appreciation for others, if nothing else. Last week, I found myself reeling as I watched chef Rick Stein eat his way around Shanghai. He was meeting people who could speak English (such as a food blogger who translated very specific, food questions), and locals who couldn’t speak English. He was invited into their kitchens, their workplaces and even their homes, yet he could not say …

Zuckerberg’s The Ideal Student

In October 2014, Mark Zuckerberg addressed an audience. This wasn’t the first time the Facebook founder had given a speech, but itwas the first time he’d given one in Mandarin — much to the surprise of the Beijing audience. No one can deny that the first minute of the speech felt strange to the ears and eyes — here was a white American man connecting tones and words that weren’t his own, and were alien to those watching from his native America. But while the Chinese audience applauded him, others at home, and elsewhere, were quick to put down his attempts to connect with the crowd. One piece claimed that Zuckerberg sounded like he had a ‘mouthful of marbles’, later picking out a word that he’d mispronounced. This same negative scrutiny followed when he gave another speech in Chinese last year. One writer described his efforts as ‘clumsy Mandarin’. In my experience, the hardest thing about learning a new language (normally a second language, as opposed to a third or fourth) isn’t retaining the information or learning tenses, it’s …