Language Learning, Part 1: My Why

As a teenager, Saturday mornings meant going to Chinese school; a place in which I was almost certain 100% of my classmates were forced to attend, judging by the unabashed looks of boredom on their faces. I grew up speaking Cantonese largely due to the fact that my grandparents spoke very little English, and for that I am eternally grateful. It gave me an edge. I was (and still am) illiterate, but heck at least I sounded like a native speaker. 

You see, placements in Chinese class varied by ability level. A-class (A-ban) was for the elite Chinese language learners: those who grew up speaking, reading, and writing Chinese. B-ban was second-tier, C-ban meant you had some ability but weren’t destined for greatness (obviously), and D-ban… well, you might as well have been a dunce. At some point, the school decided to open up an X-ban, of which I was placed. 

The best way I can describe X-ban is that we were the true bananas of the entire student population in Chinese school. Many of my classmates spoke with a strong Canadian accent, and I would often feel a twinge of fremdschämen (German for “second hand embarrassment”) when I heard them speak. I will shamefully admit that my family found great entertainment value in hearing me replicate the broken accents in which my classmates spoke. 

Source: Urban Dictionary

If I excelled in Chinese class, it was only because I was driven by grades. My success in Chinese school was superficial at best. On the inside, I carried enormous shame and guilt. I couldn’t even order food off a menu, for God’s sake! How was I ever supposed to pass on this rich and vast culture upon which I was bestowed? For years, I carried this burden with me. I cried myself to sleep at nights, silently, so that no one could witness my shame. 

In linguistics, there is something called the “Critical Period Hypothesis” which claims that after a certain age, language acquisition is rare, if not impossible. For many years, I accepted this claim without question. I now know this to be true: I was held back by my own limiting beliefs about what I could accomplish. That has prevented me from putting in my full effort and making a commitment to truly learning a language. In the past, I relied on school to provide me with a structured learning experience but did not personalize the experience for myself. I needed to claim ownership of my own learning, and it would take several more years before I could fully accept this realization. 

To learn is to expand the mind beyond what it was previously capable of. Learning helps us understand the world and others in new ways. Language has the unique ability to instantly build trust and cultivate a sense of belonging. Language reflects a mode of thinking, a way of life, a culture – I want to embrace all of the above. I used to be ashamed of my own level of Chinese and felt the burden of having been born into this culture within the Canadian context. No more. 

Tada gan irracht is Gaelic for “nothing without effort.” I understand now that I must not take anything for granted, even my own cultural heritage, rich and vast, of which I know shamefully little. Being born Chinese, I felt an expectation of expertise beyond my abilities which stagnated my growth as a language learner. 

Perhaps a little bizarre, but I’ll start with Italian as a way to open my mind up to future language learning for languages in which I have some familiarity, and also those of which I have none. In starting from ground zero, I am freeing myself up to simply begin again. 

Why Italian? It has made a most unexpected but welcome entrance into my life. Love, as they say, makes fools of us all, but it’s a foolishness I’ll happily embrace. 

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