Speaking or not speaking a foreign language is often regarded as a form of destiny. If you weren’t lucky enough to be given the push as a child, by the time you’re old enough to make your own decisions, the time has forever passed. ‘Life’ takes over, and you’ll never speak French, Russian or Mandarin.
This is even more true with notoriously difficult Asian languages. And so I hear voice after voice telling me they wish they could speak Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian; followed by – sometimes – an added sigh of annoyed resignation that their children’s school only propose French or German!
But it’s not too late. I started learning Mandarin at 29, outside any formal setting. Five years later, I can reasonably well read and translate short pieces written in Chinese, and I recently did an interview – all in Chinese – on ABC radio.
Did I have more time than other people? I guess not. Over these five years, I migrated to Australia, started a new career in the public service, wrote a novel and a half, directed a short film, coordinated an exhibition, and developed a not-for-profit IT start-up. I also slept, ate, and saw friends; I even watched all seasons of Gossip Girl, Dexter and True Blood.
I did start in a good place though. I trained as a linguist, and a singer. I speak a number of European languages, which I started learning from the age of nine. And spent considerable time during my studies translating from the Greek, English, Latin or German. That certainly helped.
However, it’s not all there is to it. I met other people who reached equivalent fluency in the same amount of time, without a previous Master’s in linguistics. What we did share was motivation. It’s years before you can communicate, read, or get the feel of the language; not years of once a week, but years of – mostly – daily work. So without a strong commitment, you will drop off after a few weeks or months – unless you’re a child, and you just have to do it.
My life is full enough already, I hear. And yet how many people put that much effort into their gym routine. After months and years of repeated runs on the treadmill, they can boast a firm calf; now I can reply to them in Chinese.
If building Asian literacy is of such importance for Australia, why aren’t there more adult learners of Mandarin, Indonesian or Japanese? Or at the very least, why isn’t every jogger on the Tan hopping along to Mandopop tunes?
Language is at the sweet-spot between nature and culture. By nature, humans have a language; and yet language is a cultural artifact. Let’s not fall into the trap of taking language as pure nature, therefore, and accept this nature as our destiny. Let’s make efforts, and learn Asian languages. I think we can do it.