Why is it hard?

That’s a bit personal isn’t it?  Well it has to do with blood flow and… what?  No?  Oh I had no idea.  Yeah that does make more sense, I suppose.  OK, yeah… we’ll go with that.

Learning a foreign language, any foreign language, is hard.  However, languages which share a common root language are much easier to learn once you learn one of them.  For example, people who speak American can easily pick up Spanish, French, Italian or British.  They all share the same root language (Latin or something).

The same seems to be true for other roots too.  People who speak Cantonese seem to be easily successful in learning Mandarin while native Mandarin speakers generally could care less about learning Cantonese.  A lot of this comes from having a similar written language.  Although most of China uses Simplified Chinese script, the southern areas of China including Hong Kong use Traditional Chinese script.  And while most southern Chinese speak Cantonese, people from Taiwan speak Mandarin and use Traditional Chinese. Therefore our one transplant employee from Taiwan only took about six months to learn Cantonese because they shared the same written language and same root.  The same would be true of any native American speaker who moves to South or East L.A. or Miami.  They would pick up Spanish in no time at all if they cared to and lived long enough.

Another No-No I’ve found with learning languages seems to be trying to learn two new languages at the same time.  Even though Cantonese and Mandarin are of the same root, it doesn’t matter much because their root is not the same as the root of my native language.  Learning Mandarin from a class once a week and picking up little fragments of Cantonese a few times a week make for some very confusing translations.  Add to that trying to learn the Traditional Chinese written script at the same time and we have a recipe for headaches.  Plus I have one other glaring problem that keeps me from my true linguistic potential: I’m American.

Americans wallow in the isolationist thinking that if you don’t speak English then you don’t count.  We are a one-language-culture and proud of it in most cases.  Most conversations I have had with groups of people back home involving things about China (or Japan or anything remotely sounding Asian) generally had one person being goofy and saying something like “Ching chang chong”.  Before I moved to Hong Kong, I know I have done this a few times myself.  It’s in our human nature to be afraid of things we don’t understand and make fun of them lest we curl up into a ball in tears.  It’s also how we keep from learning.

I remember a time when I actually thought: “If you’re going to live in America then learn the damn language!” while punching my fist in the air with righteous indignation.  I imagine that the locals here sometimes feel the exact same way.  I just can’t understand when they’re making fun of me.  So instead of being a complete asshole, I am trying to break out and learn the language.  I know that I can never be fluent but I’m at least trying and the people here seem to enjoy that.  At least it gives them something else to make fun of me for other than being a gwai lou.

3 Responses to “Why is it hard?”

  1. rev_matt says:

    So you’re saying that I should be learning Cantonese rather than Mandarin based on where I’m going?

  2. cybrpunk says:

    Yes, Cantonese is actually called Guangdong Hua so it’s named after the Guangdong province that you will be visiting. Anywhere you go around Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, etc will be speaking Cantonese and probably very little Mandarin.

  3. A-GO-GO says:

    i am coming to Asia this summer…
    for about 3 weeks to a month.
    S. Korea is calling me…
    will maybe teach at a camp for a week or two and then go exploring….

    I love Asia…
    been to Thailand, Malaysia and Singaore….

    My goal is to one day boat down the Mekong into Saigon…make my way to Ho Chi Minh City.

    About the language..
    I’m never in one place long enough to learn much but I get the basic, needed words down. When I think back to my time in Thailand, I recall needing to remember landmark buildings when walking around because the street signs were in Thai language which is of course made up of symbols that look like cool tattoo art to me…

    I love being lost in a world so different than my own.

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