ON LEARNING FOREIGN LANGUAGES
After a year, my Chinese is passable. Sure, I run into brick walls every day (getting very good at that, in fact), but I can get by. I haven’t had any formal training, partially because I haven’t wanted to spend money on it and partially because the last thing I want to do is study, but I’ve become quite good at befriending restaurant owners and using their menus to learn from, or watching TV, or signs I see on the street, or bus and train schedules. I also make use of people who want to practice their English with me, and try to respond to their questions in Chinese if I can, and ask them how to say it if I can’t. After all, Mandarin Chinese is only the most difficult language in the world to learn. Its grammar is very simple, but pronunciation is the killer. Grammatically it’s quite simple, but pronunciation is the killer: Chinese is full of internal vowel sounds that are differentiated only by their tone, or emphasis, which are often hard to hear and even harder to remember. Take the word “gan” for instance: it can mean “and” or it can mean “f----k.” Not a word to mispronounce. Luckily, the Taiwanese are quick to forgive. They might mow you down on their motorcycles but they’ll smile and nod if you accidentally swear in their face.
Which has given me some insight to the struggles of foreigners in America. The war that my country has waged on immigrants thoroughly disgusts me. I don’t mean economically, or health insurance, or driver’s licenses; those are separate issues. I mean the demand that every foreigner who so much as thinks about coming to America speaks English. Which is, by the way, the second most challenging language on Earth to learn. English is a mongrel tongue, stemming from German and French. Pronunciation’s not that hard, but the grammar is so convoluted and at times mystifying to learn. But even that’s beside the point. I get incensed whenever I hear some bonehead snarling, “Speak English!” Riiiiight…..because everyone is zapped by a Holy Tongue the minute they cross the border, and they’re retaining their old speech just to annoy you. Learning a foreign language cannot happen overnight. The Puerto Rican taxi driver or the Mexican waitress might actively be taking English lessons, but all that’s down the drain the moment one of the bozos among us opens his or her mouth. Nice going. At any rate, like we can talk: there are at least a billion signs in the good ole US of A which say things like “Bobs Hardware Store,” or, “The “Real” Food Store,” or “Used Car’s For Sale.” Hypocrisy at its finest.
There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.
- Robert Louis Stevenson