Posted by: balladofyoko | June 15, 2006

On Languages

On my way to work this morning, yet another woman greeted me with Ni hao! She was walking quickly and with determination to get somewhere. After saying politely that I do not speak Chinese, she switched to English and asked me what time it was. I told her, and she thanked me, speeding off ahead to wherever she was going.

As I had written in Ashy’s comments, I can understand the need for people to connect to someone who seems to be of the same culture/background, and one of the easiest ways to do so is through language. On one hand, I’m annoyed by the assumption that I’m of the culture of the querent (to date, I have never been approached by a Japanese person who spoke to me in Japanese– the Japanese I’ve encountered here have always started by speaking English to me!); but on the other hand, I felt bad that I couldn’t speak in the language that was spoken to me, be it Chinese or Korean.

I love languages. I do. I have a rudimentary reading knowledge of French, Italian, and German that I’m required to have for my job. I can read enough Cyrillic Russian to get by in my work also, and can guess fairly well at Spanish. Japanese, of course, was the language I grew up hearing at home, and having taken some courses in it allows me to speak somewhat intelligibly, but far from fluently. Oh, and English, that crazy language.

I want to learn how to speak Chinese and Korean, not because I want to prove these strangers correct in their assumptions, because I don’t want to be something that I’m not, but because I’m crazy and think it would be fun to learn them. There has been a lot of press concerning the signs at Geno’s Steaks, and although I think his wording is abrasive, English is the common language in this city that attempts to bridge differences in originating backgrounds. However, I have no qualms about meeting someone halfway in learning her language, for maybe that becomes a way of learning from a fellow human being whom I may not have otherwise gotten to know. It seems worth it to me.



  1. When I was in grade school there were 2 girls who spoke to each other exclusively in Pig Latin. They were awesomely fluent.

  2. Subome ubof ubus spuboke ububbubi dububbubi ubin cubollubege. Fubairwubitnubess knubows whubat ubI’m tubalkubing ubabubout.

  3. You know, I have the same crazy desire to learn Mandarin (and re-learn those 400 characters I used to know) and Japanese. And get my Korean to be really good. If I didn’t think it completely, ludicrously unfeasible, I’d also want to learn Cantonese.

  4. Abrasive is a good word for the Geno’s signage. I wonder how “whiz” translates…

  5. whatever happened to esperanto? wasn’t that supposed to be the language to bridge all cultures?

    i think everyone should learn spanish and chinese.

  6. I love languages because I find the way that cultures and languages developed very interesting (i sometimes wonder whether I would have done better as a linguist rather than a scientist)…

    Anyway, I’ll have to second mikenya, whatever happened to esperanto?

  7. Another thought: Considering that many business have sites in Asia – whether they be customer service or sweatshop – and that China is opening itself up more to capitalism, it won’t be long before the dominant language in which to conduct business will be Mandarin or even Hindi. I agree with our local school board rep – Dump German and French in school and introduce Mandarin. Kids shouldn’t be learning “modern” languages as much as they should learn “relevant” languages.


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