We have English and Google Translate, now we just need Mandarin

Our welfare today depends on the welfare of others. The United Nations COP26 conference has highlighted again how we all bear collective responsibility for the stewardship of the ecosystem of our planet. One third of the world’s shipping containers pass through Singapore in South-East Asia, reminding us that the goods on which we rely come to us from across the globe. In Asia as a whole, we are keenly aware that the tensions between China and the United States affect not just those two nations but all of us. Bono, Father Gregory Boyle and Roger Waters have all been credited with summing it like this:

“There is no us and them; there is only us.”

Learning a foreign language has been about communicating what “we” want to “them”: learning how to say “Two beers, please” or “Do you have a single room with a shower from the 3rd to the 10th of August?” to those people over there. With a smartphone in our hands (and English in our pockets), we rarely have a problem getting “them” to understand what we want anymore. But understanding what “they” want … well, that’s a different matter. Since our welfare today depends on the welfare of others, it is a vital skill we must help our students to acquire.

The key to this skill is language, because language is not just how humans communicate; it’s how we process our thoughts and emotions. And the language we use affects that process.

“Language is how we process our thoughts and emotions.
And the language we use affects that process.”

As a simple illustration, a language text book (or digital translator) will tell you that the Chinese word “豆” means “bean.” But if you do an image search for “豆” and then for “bean,” you will not get the same results. When an English speaker says “bean,” they will most likely think first of a long green vegetable. When a Chinese speaker says “豆,” they will most likely think first of a round yellow pulse. The English speaker may also think of broad beans, coffee beans or jelly beans. The Chinese speaker may also think of peas, potatoes and zits. The power of words lies in what they conjure up in our imagination, and clearly what we imagine depends on the language we are using. If we want to understand what others are thinking, we cannot rely on translating their words into our language; we must take steps into their cognitive universe.

Not long ago, a university professor in the United States caused an uproar when they sent an email urging international graduate students to speak only English. Some lambasted the professor for being racist and insensitive, whilst others insisted that the professor was a mentor trying to protect those they cared for from possible discrimination by others.

What the furore highlighted is that …

“Language is not just about what words mean;
it is about what they mean to us.”

It is not just our minds that are engaged by language; it is our hearts (the ancients would go deeper still and say “our bowels”!). In an interview with Richard Stengel, Nelson Mandela put it this way: “When you speak a language, English, well many people understand you, including Afrikaners. But when you speak Afrikaans, you know you go straight to their hearts.”

The corollary of this is the emotional impact that a language we do not know (like Mandarin Chinese for most of us) has on us. If someone starts talking about something unfamiliar to us – perhaps why channel 126 on the mixing desk is set at 7 instead of 3; or why Pantone 2905 would be a better colour choice than Pantone 3005; or why Player A is a greater athlete than Player B – we may be intrigued and listen in or we may happily dismiss the conversation as irrelevant. But if the conversation is in a language we do not know, our response is quite different. We lack sufficient anchor points to listen in and yet we struggle to simply ignore the conversation because a foreign language typically elicits a visceral reaction in us. Most often that reaction is fear.

“A foreign language typically elicits a visceral reaction in us.
Most often that reaction is fear.”

As Palestinians living in Haifa in Israel, designers Sana Jammalieh and Haitham Haddad are very aware that speaking their mother tongue makes people around them suspicious. They decided to tackle the fear with humour and produced a tote bag which went viral when it was photographed on a Berlin subway train. The bag had a simple message printed on it in bold Arabic script which read: “This text has no meaning except to scare people who don’t understand it.”

Foreign languages are a readily accessible and highly effective resource with which to train ourselves to face the unknown with confidence instead of fear. The greater the ‘linguistic distance’ between a language that we do not know and the languages that we do, the greater the results. By a huge margin, the two languages spoken by more human beings than any other are English and Mandarin Chinese. Fortuitously, they also happen to be as distant from each other as any two languages can be.

English and Mandarin are not just different languages; they are different kinds of language. It is not just that most English speakers do not know what Chinese words mean; we do not know how the Chinese language works. That makes it especially frightening. Our visceral response to foreign languages is likely to be at its most extreme with Mandarin Chinese. And that is precisely why it is a uniquely valuable resource for learning to face the unknown with confidence.

“Mandarin Chinese is a uniquely valuable resource
for learning to face the unknown with confidence.”

If the public were asked to say what word might follow “language,” chances are high that “barrier” would be the most frequent answer. But do our languages have to be a barrier that divides us? The Chinese language relies heavily on “measure words.” We define the units of measurement for some nouns in English, such as five loaves of bread rather than two slices of bread. Chinese, on the other hand, insists we define the unit of measurement for all countable nouns: like three families of shops or four strips of roads or rivers. So what measure word do you think would be most suitable for languages? Insightfully, the measure word the ancient Chinese settled on is not “wall” but “gateway” – as in, “I speak three gateways of languages.” Language is not supposed to be the object of study; it is supposed to be a gateway through which we enter another’s world.

All this to say that for native speakers of English (or other Indo-European languages) learning Mandarin Chinese offers a unique opportunity to discover different thought processes, to learn to relate better to others and to expand the horizons of our imagination. But this will only happen if we are prepared to re-orient ourselves as teachers and learners of language, and to re-humanise the language learning process by delegating mechanical tasks to technology.