Bilingualism

So, as triggered by my confrontation with the Chinese book report (remember? whatever the answer is, it’s okay): a reflection on my incompetence at dealing with two languages, and why this matters, or not.

I can think in both languages. It’s a natural product of our school environment. The two languages often have to complement each other; most of the nerdy terms or globally relevant allusions are English-exclusive (I couldn’t talk coherently about SOPA in any language other than English!), but a lot of cultural and geographical staples around here are Chinese only. And sometimes there are unexpected holes where an innocuous-looking phrase simply has a few too many connotations to translate perfectly (the example I always get stuck on, and have yet to solve satisfactorily with anything short of a full sentence recasting, is “appreciate”.)

Also for some reason when I consciously make myself cross the language rift my internal subvocalization process gains this elaborate mainland accent with extra effort to make the retro-alveo-something sounds emphasized. That is something I can’t talk about coherently in either language alone. Tada.

But all things considered, my thought and writing process seems more optimized for English. I think the dramatic difference in the subjects of study in our education is a big source of the problem: namely, too much Classical Chinese stuff. I concede, learning it for the heritage and historical background is important and completely justified, and there are a lot of big-picture literary techniques that can be applied no matter which dialect of language one decides to use. Still, being able to apply them in a language-independent manner is far from trivial. And everybody is so serious in these passages, just going on about how to be wise, use money and time well, or how beautiful the frozen lake is in winter (so the consensus is I’m severely deficient in aesthetic percepts as well, but that’s a topic for another post). Only the best of the best parts of the important wise people’s writings made it into these books, but we’re not all important wise people and you can’t expect us to write in this manner all the time! Nothing even vaguely outlandish or imaginative like (pulling something out of a hat here) “Harrison Bergeron”. This term’s Chinese textbook has just seven passages, five classical and two vernacular. And I simply don’t believe anybody is actually expecting us to learn the ins and outs of Classical Chinese to write it! There aren’t any authors publishing books in the dialect. It’s important and memorable and significant to our heritage, all undeniable points that I concede, but it’s dead, as harsh as it feels saying that.

I don’t know how much of this is my own fault for not reading as much Chinese “extracurriculars”. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m already stuck in a confirmation bias feedback loop. There is definitely much more hype and many more options if one is looking a foreign-language bestseller (even after translation) than compared with native ones. And just maybe, there really aren’t enough cool or attractive authors for me, because my jargon-infested computer-reliant hyperlinked niche is already too firmly wedged on the other side of the cultural barrier. Being a technologically up-to-date nerd is just so much easier following the Western world where everybody else is.

And, while we’re on the technological bits (no pun intended): the Internet is still not quite free of its roots in seven-bit ASCII. Of course we’re moving away, forced by the waves of globalization (Google says 60% of the web uses Unicode), but it’s still far from a completely idiot-proof system. Pentadactyl isn’t playing nice with me over here with two foreign characters. I should fix this except I don’t think I’d make any progress.

On ease of writing and file size: because of less redundancy and more versatile combination, I’m pretty sure Chinese is a little bit more compact if considered as just a sequence of bytes, even under reasonable UTF encoding. But when writing words out, there’s a lot of room for contention, and as a math nerd nothing makes me more frustrated than graph theory. Take a look: 邊 (“edge”/“side”) has 19 zarking strokes and takes me three times as long to write out as either the English word or the simplified character (6 strokes). 點 (naturally “point”/“vertex”), 17 versus 9. And when I have to write an entire proof with these characters again and again, well.. use your imagination. I still feel some loyalty to preserving tradition and keeping the writing in the traditional format, but considerations like these make me admit that the whole simplification thing has some very good points. (Then, who knows how much physical writing I should expect to need to perform in the rest of my life, as the computers take over?)

But on the flip side, English is really a clusterfudge of a language, too! How can anybody tolerate pronouncing “colonel” the way we do? Seriously? It’s idiotic and that’s a profound understatement. Okay, this post is basically nothing but understatements, or maybe I’m just always a hyperbolic writer. In any case, I need to stop overcorrecting this post like I always do.

Yes, that’s all. Everybody should switch to Esperanto or something, just like the Dvorak keyboard layout or base-6 number system.