URS Mystery of Language Part A: My fascination with language
I have a great fascination with language. My first language was, strangely, English, because of my American born mother, but I learned to also speak Chaozhou, Cantonese, Mandarin, and finally, Hakka (Kejia), in that order. I learned to speak the first 3 in childhood, and the last 2, Mandarin and Hakka, as an adult. I learned Mandarin in the Cincinnati Chinese Church, and Hakka by speaking with my wife’s nieces in Seattle, who grew up in Thailand speaking the language!
Since prayer language might include a few “more specialized terms,” I used to only pray in English, my “comfortable” language. I’m wondering if there was also a bit of subconscious absurdity that my language should be “better” when addressing the heavens! But I have always urged people to be bold in speaking any language, so I took my own advice and started using Mandarin in prayers. At first it was infrequent, only when I really had to, like when I was praying with someone who only spoke Mandarin. In the last year, however, since moving to Seattle, better late than never, I started using Mandarin in prayers regularly, and also Cantonese (which oddly, I had not used either before), when praying with my wife, who knows all the languages mentioned, plus childhood Thai.
Then, to my own surprise, and to my wife’s even greater surprise, I actually began to try using Chaozhou and Hakka in my prayers. At age 76! Amazingly, I can now converse and even say my prayers, pretty fluently, in all 5 languages! Now, I can even jump between different languages for fun and verbal effect, since I feel it “stretches my mind.”
Actually, I think I had a distinct language advantage when growing up, since many languages, and especially these 5 languages, were floating around me then. The words and their nerve tracks obviously had etched themselves into my brain speech zones, subconsciously, just waiting for the right time to integrate with my later attempts at speaking them. As I began to actually speak in my less familiar languages, and especially as I prayed, suddenly some words I did not even know I knew, just popped into my mouth, sometimes seemingly bypassing my thinking brain, out of some deep brain reserve, words I might only have heard 65 years ago! And many related memories have also surprisingly floated into my mind. What a surprise and mystery!
Some people think that Chinese languages are all just dialects of Chinese. But language experts now know that many Chinese languages are truly languages, and no longer considered dialects. For example, Chaozhou, Cantonese, and Hakka are languages different from Mandarin, as different as Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian are from Latin. Meaning that a person speaking in Mandarin cannot just switch into Chaozhou or Cantonese like a “dialect” or a tone change, because, surprisingly, the actual words used in speaking may not even be Chinese words that a Mandarin speaking person would use.
What is confusing to Mandarin speakers is that the Chaozhou or Cantonese person, in trying to communicate with other Chinese people, converts himself into Mandarin automatically when he writes out his words. So, when other Chinese look at the words, they recognize it as Mandarin Chinese, and think that the spoken form of Chaozhou or Cantonese, which is their true natural language, must also be a variation of Mandarin Chinese. It might, and it might not; it just depends.
To further complicate matters, these spoken languages might nowadays be also written out in their own languages, and not in official Mandarin. Open a truly Cantonese newspaper in Hong Kong, or try to read the ads in the Hong Kong MTR subway. The Mandarin speaking person will be so surprised, and suddenly realize that a different language is being used! Isn’t Hong Kong part of China? Strange, is it not? What are they trying to say, is it Chinese? Well, it is and it isn’t.
This situation is an analogy of Europe of the past, when the literate European communicated in Latin in writing, but spoke Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian at home or with friends. Got it? As a modern joke, they might now communicate in English writing! Which is obviously not Spanish, Portuguese or Italian.
Try to read the Kanji of the Japanese language, which are basically Chinese characters, but which sound, and might mean different things from Chinese. Chinese is basically often indeed like the Latin of Asia, the structure around which many languages are related, including the so called “Chinese languages,” and other national languages (such as spoken Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese).
And just for fun, just within the Chinese languages, remember that there are 9 tones in Cantonese, compared with 4 or 5 in Mandarin, which adds a tremendous complexity and strain on speaker and listener, when trying to learn this as a new language. I always quip that when you are not a native Cantonese speaker, the moment you open your mouth to try to speak in Cantonese, even if you think your version of Cantonese is pretty good, there is an 8 to 1 chance that you will be wrong!
And to the native speaker, when the non-Cantonese says something that is not the right tone, it is very sharply recognized as hilarious or weird, just like any music that is off key, which it is, sort of. And unfortunately, the native speaker (and therefore listener) will often burst out, embarrassingly, with great laughter, because to him or her it really sounds “so funny.” That’s why it is so difficult to learn Cantonese if you are not a native speaker! It can be quite humiliating, intentional or not.
I used to play language tapes as I was driving, in order to learn different languages. At my peak of learning, I could speak 20 to 50 phrases, in each different language. My minimum target was “20 phrases in 20 languages.” The great linguist Berlitz’ recommendation has always been that if you knew 20 phrases in any language you can get around in any country, since the only really important words are “how are you, thank you, goodbye, pleased to meet you, where is the bathroom? etc.”
I had great fun learning these languages and truly wherever I traveled, I would use the local language that I memorized, using key phrases. Particularly for Thai, Malay-Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, and European languages. My language acquisition was not difficult because I had already had at least 5 language tracks etched in my brain, so it was just a series of add-ons and modifications of already known sounds or musical notes. It was often a great icebreaker just to say a few words in the listener’s mother tongue, and it opened many doors. See my Uncle Reggie Stories, “Salam Allay Kuhm.”
There is also no question that the younger you learn a language, the more fluent you are. I’ve always noted that children from China who come to America before the teenage period learn within a year to speak fluently like an American, those who come as teenagers become nearly American, but those who come after age 25 will nearly never speak totally like an American! For example, I visited Thailand for the first time at age 15, and I tried to learn the language, so in later years when I returned to visit, locals often commented that my accents were pretty good, likely since I got an early start.
But with all this great joy of learning different languages, and using language to cross different cultural barriers for effective communication and friendship, no one knows, in the secular world, where language originally comes from! No one! People have tried all kinds of ways of trying to find out where language originally came from, by teaching parrots and apes to try to speak some kind of human language, but the results, though fun and interesting, are abysmal in understanding this mystery. And the gap between humans and nonhumans in language ability is gargantuan in scope. We are not just talking about a small little difference or an accent, or a tone difference. We are talking about a huge jump, physiologically, that is, well, between a fish and a man.
Continued in Part B. Where does Language come from…?