How I Learn Languages

Why I feel uncomfortable when people speak to me in languages they’re learning

As I mentioned in my piece, “How do people react when Chinese-learners speak to them in Chinese?,” language for me is a means to an end: communication. So if English is the easiest way for us to communicate, if it is the path of least resistance for both of us, if it is our greatest common factor, then why would we speak any other language?!?! It just feels artificial to me and throws me off. This goes for all other languages I speak, hence why I am not a huge fan of language pledges, which require students at language programs to speak to each other only in the language they’re learning. In this piece, I’ll discuss three factors that determine whether or not I feel comfortable speaking to language-learners: 1) need, 2) a feeling of being used, 3) naturalness (pronunciation and syntax/vocabulary-wise).

Need:

Like Yale financial aid, my desire to speak a particular language to someone is need-based. In other words, my biggest consideration is: how much do we need to speak said language to each other?

Here are some real-life examples of when I am OK with people speaking to me in languages that are not our greatest common factor:

  • I was having lunch with a professor, who told me about how when he studied international relations in graduate school, he had a Chinese colleague that called it “international relationships.” I found this funny, but was a little bit confused. Sensing this, he said the term for IR in Chinese “国际关系”. I burst out laughing. In Chinese, there is no difference between the term you use for relationships between lovers and relationships between countries. 😉 The professor’s decision to switch to Chinese briefly made total sense since it was necessary in order for me to understand the joke.
  • At a dinner of people who studied East Asian languages, I spoke in Japanese with a friend to make a comment about another guy. It was necessary for me to switch to Japanese from English, so the other guy would not understand me. (I was not saying anything mean, by the way.)
  • When I was in Korea, I had many language exchange partners. I met with one of them for nearly six months and became very good friends with him. We would first converse in Chinese and then in Korean, each time correcting one another. Here, speaking in Chinese was necessary for structured language practice. The same goes for language classes.
  • At a weekly Chinese calligraphy session where everyone is speaking Chinese to each other, of course I will speak to Chinese-learners in Chinese. The setting makes it necessary, although I will sometimes still switch to English, because it just feels more natural.

Some real-life examples of when I do not feel a need to speak said language and therefore feel uncomfortable:

  • Once I was at lunch with two friends. Friend A had studied Mandarin at Yale and in China for one year and Friend B did not understand Mandarin. When we got on the topic of my business Chinese class, Friend A switched abruptly to Chinese to ask me about it. I replied in English only, even when he persisted to speak in Chinese. Not only did I feel thrown off, since we could have just been speaking in English, but I felt uncomfortable, because: A) He made errors with his tones, so it took me longer than usual to process, which irritated me and B) I do not feel comfortable leaving my friend who did not speak Mandarin out of the conversation. It just seemed rude and inconsiderate.
  • I went to an advising dinner to talk to students who were going to take part in a fellowship for studying East Asian languages. One of the students I was talking to who was interested in going to Japan asked, “Can you speak Japanese to me? I want to hear what it’s like.” I immediately felt very awkward. Has anyone ever said to you, “Oh you speak so-and-so language? Say something!” and expected you to come up with something interesting in that language right away? Well, that’s how I felt. And it’s annoying. Again, language for me is a means of communication, not something I should need to perform.
  • In Taiwan, a friend who I usually talk to in Chinese suggested that we talk in English so she could practice her English. It was a struggle for her and I just felt very awkward, since we had had very productive conversations in Chinese. Switching to English was therefore unnecessary and even irritating, since it impeded conversation. Luckily, we switched back to Chinese soon afterwards.

So the degree of need to speak a certain language is the biggest factor in whether or not I feel comfortable speaking in it to someone. The next two factors are subordinate. I.e. if there is a need to speak some language, then I don’t really think about the next two.

A Feeling of Being Used

I sometimes feel like a “language learning tool” (and that is not a good feeling). So many times at Yale, Chinese-learners have spoken to me in Chinese that I feel like some of them probably see me as a “person to practice language with” rather than as Frances Chan. As one of my friends who studied in Korea put it, “When I was in South Korea, a lot of Korean students approached other English speaking international students for the purpose of language exchange. I had friends who told me that their Korean “friends” would ask them to edit homework assignments, essays etc but never suggest to do anything else with them. They felt like they were just being used…. I am always happy to help people and I know, for the most part, these kinds of people have no ill intentions. I just don’t want my kindness to be misunderstood as a complicit agreement to just be someone’s language learning tool.” In other words, I’M NOT JUST SOMEONE YOU GO UP TO PRACTICE X LANGUAGE WITH. I’M A PERSON TOO.

Unnaturalness

Other times, I am just annoyed at the language-learner’s accent or lack of natural-ness. (Disclaimer: This point obviously does not apply to language-learners who are good at these things. And I am a lot less judgmental of people’s accents and natural-ness when we are speaking a language we need to speak. E.g. I don’t care about broken English if English is the only language we can communicate in.)

I know that accents are hard to pick up as an adult and that it takes a lot of work to sound natural in a language, so I don’t blame people who have terrible accents or little sense for the spoken language. But as someone who is particularly sensitive to linguistic normality, it is frustrating for me to hear someone speak heavily-accented, highly unnatural Chinese/English/etc, and then not be able to tell them to stop, since it is rude to tell someone, “I can’t stand your Chinese/English/etc. Let’s speak in x language instead.” (For this reason, I tried to word my last post on irritation with people in East Asia speaking to me in English carefully.)

Irritation at unnatural-ness or accents seems to be a somewhat common phenomenon among children who grow up with more than one language. In the book Growing up with Three Languages, Xiao-lei Wang notes that her sons, who have no problem responding to native French or Chinese speakers, responded very differently to non-native speakers who tried to speak to them in those languages: “they simply answered them in English or cut the conversation short by saying au revoir (goodbye)” (Wang 2006, 85). In the same section, she provides examples of other children as well: “Louis, the son of a French psychologist Jules Ronjat, was bilingual in French and German and felt upset by anyone who addressed him in ‘imperfect’ French or German.58 The bilingual children of Australian linguist George Saunders rarely continued to converse with people who they detected were not native speakers of either German or English.59 Similarly, American psycholinguist Werner Leopold’s daughter Hildegard, who was bilingual in German and English, often criticized people when they spoke ‘defective’ German.60 This reminds me of my own experience of being ‘rejected’ by two French-speaking children… on campus. I thought that young children would not care about my accent and grammar…[but] they looked at me as if I were a halfwit.”

Needless to say, this affects the way I study languages. I absolutely do not want someone to feel the way I feel when I speak to them in a language I’m learning: uncomfortable. I am aware that other people are usually not as sensitive as I am to accents and natural-ness. I’m also aware that it’s almost impossible to have sound “perfect” in a language. That said, I want to be good enough that people like myself won’t mind when I make blips. (For example, this girl’s Chinese is basically perfect in terms of tones and naturalness minus the occasional blips which I do not mind at all.) This means it takes me a lot more work than someone who tries to literally translate all their thoughts into whatever language they’re learning, what is sometimes called “translationese” (번역투).  But I am willing to do it and to be honest, I feel an obligation to do it. Otherwise, I’ll feel like I’m doing an injustice to the language–and to the people who need to listen to me speak in it.

One thought on “Why I feel uncomfortable when people speak to me in languages they’re learning

  1. the part about international relationships was funny! in korea too when i told people i was studying 국제관계학 they would reply in english “oh, international relationships?” and i would just be like yeah sure

    Liked by 1 person

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