I always struggle with the languages box on applications: what do I put for Cantonese and Mandarin? I’m sure that I don’t speak them fluently or even moderately well, but I’m not a beginner either. My lack of usage in anything other than limited family contexts prevents me from attaining the former, while the earfuls I have heard since I was a child push me a little further from the latter. I’m admittedly a little frightened at being put in a situation of responsibility where I have to speak either Cantontese or Mandarin, but my pride does not permit me to say I’m a beginner.

My linguistic pride has historically developed from considerations that are more exclusive than inclusive. There is a notion of authenticity that I think is familiar to many of immediate immigrant lineage: if I don’t speak the language of my parents, I’m a lesser variant of their racial/ethnic/cultural category. Coupled with the explicit and implicit identity exclusion from white-dominated societies, it’s easier to try to belong to one category rather than to carve out alternative beings, as is thankfully now bearing fruit. To fit into the former category, it is helpful to speak the language(s) of your parents. Part of my unwillingness to let go of Mandarin and Cantonese comes from an uninformed desire to be “better” or more “authentic” than somebody who does not speak either of the two, and whose parents speak it. I shouldn’t derive satisfaction from this comparison, but I still do, in tandem with the tinges of guilt and disgust at my own reaction.

Is it weird that I live on an edge of competency with two of my core languages? By core, I mean that, although I cannot work at all with Cantonese and Mandarin in many practical scenarios, I emotionally resonate with them. Letting go of Cantonese or Mandarin would mean never again feeling an almost nostalgia upon hearing a classic canto/mando pop song: I wasn’t alive when these songs were first released, nor do I remember when I heard them for the first time, but they return me to an imaginary time where I thought that everything would turn out okay. Everything could still turn out okay, and it’s a bit easier to believe that when I listen to these songs.

One of the hardest times I’ve ever laughed was with one of my roommates, who also speaks Cantonese, when we were going over some Cantonese proverbs. The pictures themselves were certainly funny, but I found the actual idea of the words themselves, strung together as they were, hilarious. I never use most of these phrases, let alone understand what they mean, so it’s all the more strange to me, and indicative of my emotional attachment to Cantonese, that I react to them in such a way. For instance, let’s look at 佛都有火 (faht dōu yáuh fó). This expression is used to denote that something is intolerable, like this pandemic. The phrase literally means, “even the Buddha has fire”, so the situation is so intolerable that this paragon of patience is ignited in consternation. I’ve only heard this expression used in serious situations, and sometimes in scoldings; in fact, I’ve only recently found my way to laugh at the expression! Another great one is 運桔 (wahn gāt), which I have heard in a more light-hearted context. This phrase refers to something that is just wasting one’s time, so for me it conjures up this idea of a bumbling fool just going around and trolling people.

It might not be so weird to have all of this emotional attachment, but relatively little of the linguistic competence. My father has mentioned in passing that, despite not having spoken Toisanese in years, it would be relatively easy for him to pick it back up again after speaking it for a while. At times when I’ve tried to pick up Mandarin, I’ve found what he said to be true for me. I’ve recently been trying to learn more Cantonese as well, where I’ve surprised myself with the alacrity with which I’m recognizing phrases I’ve heard before, but whose symbols I’ve never seen, whose structure I’ve never learned, and whose meanings I’ve never pondered. At a broader level, the historical reality of life in a borderlands, like many parts of China, is multilingual. My ancestors may not have been entirely familiar with the languages of their regional neighbours, but they probably interacted with them enough to pick up the rudiments, and be able to survive if they ever moved there.

According to a book on Vietnamese that I’m working through, itself citing an unspecified linguist, language proficiency is 100% knowledge of the phonology, 50% knowledge of the grammar, and 1% knowledge of the vocabulary. I think the emphasis on phonetics is correct. Perhaps I will find Braille easier than I think, but the process of vocalization helps me both in concretizing a word and in remembering its meaning. For instance, in learning Spanish I found that flechazo (flay-cha-so) sounds just like a shot from an arrow! It’s easy to imagine Cupid’s arrow, which leads to one of the word’s colloquial meanings. I can also feel the burst as the arrow snaps from the string, similar to the sudden unveiling of the world as I have a moment of revelation, another one of the word’s meanings.

Of course, it is unlikely that I would have accorded so much meaning into flechazo had I not already been familiar with the French flèche (flehsh), arrow. I didn’t always have this familiarity, just as I did not always have my emotional resonance with canto/mando pop. It’s also hard to pinpoint when exactly I developed this capacity; repeatedly reviewing a word is a mechanical process that does not mesh well with imaginative understanding, as opposed to leaving the word and allowing it to return naturally to me in the course of interacting with the language. Repetition is certainly involved, but the process seems to be something more like integration, as what you have just learned becomes more deeply enmeshed into what you already know.

The 50% of grammar probably includes a core logic of expression. I could probably do pretty well without the finer points of a grammar, but there is an internal logic to phrases that is central to how I express myself and think in a language. In Japanese, for instance, one marks the topic of a sentence with the particle は (wa); the topic, however, is not necessarily the grammatical subject. The equivalent in English is “as for”, but this phrase is by far not as common as は, which underscores the importance of this feature of the core logic of Japanese.

One can probably look up how accurate “1% knowledge of the vocabulary” is, but I suspect it’s in a reasonable enough ballpark.

My love of languages hasn’t always been as much of a priority as I would have liked, but I’ve been able to reset this relationship with some new habits in the past few months. One of my joyful rediscoveries in this time has been the sheer fun of learning and thinking about languages. Learning French, and going on an immersion program to Québec for a month, was the highlight of my time in high school. My favourite classes during my undergraduate education were a sequence of two courses in linguistic anthropology, while my favourite professor was the one who taught both of those courses. One of my favourite trips during this time was to learn Mandarin in Harbin, China for a month, as part of a foreign language program with my university. Learning a language is satisfying because with each new word or grammatical principle I’m establishing an anchor from which I can set off to new islands of meaning. I’m gradually unfogging the windows into more people than I’ll ever meet, more books than I’ll ever read, and more songs than I’ll ever hear. I constantly feel that my own world isn’t big enough without the addition of these others. One of my favourite feelings is to see a person’s face light up as I address them in their native language, however bumbling I sound. I love to run my hands along the tapestry of literature, feeling the texture of the chains of meaning that help to make life worth it. To end, here is one of my favourite poems of late, from Jorge Luis Borges.

Ahí está lo que fue: la terca espada
del sajón y su métrica de hierro,
los mares y las islas del destierro
del hijo de Laertes, la dorada
luna del persa y los sin fin jardines
de la filosofía y de la historia,
el oro sepulcral de la memoria
y en la sombra el olor de los jazmines.
Y nada de eso importa. El resignado
ejercicio del verso no te salva
ni las aguas del sueño ni la estrella
que en la arrasada noche olvida el alba.
Una sola mujer es tu cuidado,
igual a las demás, pero que es ella.

Alan Chan
Alan Chan
PhD Student

I’m a PhD student at Mila, where I think about AI safety. I’d be happy to have a chat!