Languages Come Easily (3)

When the army first assigned me to the National Security Agency (NSA), I discovered that the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., offered a master’s degree in Chinese. I enrolled as a part-time student. Within a few years, I was competent in all three languages of Vietnam—Vietnamese, Chinese, and French.

My study of Chinese broadened my understanding of Asian linguistic thinking. Like Vietnamese, Chinese is a monosyllabic language using tones. It, too, employs compounds. What makes it so difficult is its writing system: characters.

The Chinese character consists of two elements: the radical and the phonetic. The radical gives some hint on the meaning, the phonetic a suggestion about the pronunciation. There are 214 radicals. The number of phonetics seems infinite.

There are some 80,000 Chinese characters. And if Chinese is like other languages, new words—therefore new characters—appear every year. The Chinese spend their entire lives learning characters and still have to refresh their memory, just as we English-speakers use a dictionary to check our spelling.

The writing of characters is an art in itself. The characters are drawn, ideally, not with a pen but with a paint brush. I practiced writing characters (with a pen, not a brush) for years but never achieved even a workman’s level excellence. It is a lifetime pursuit.

The study of Chinese further broadened my understanding of how languages work and deepened my insight into modes of thinking and logic. Because I am a writer by vocation, my knowledge of other languages significantly advanced my ability to use English.

I was surprised how often others expressed admiration for my dogged determination to learn foreign languages. To most Americans, speaking a language other than English is a major achievement. In other countries, knowing more than one language is routine. It’s time we Americans changed the way we think about languages.

More next time.

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