Language Learning and Perpetual Childhood

When people ask me why I’m learning Chinese, I usually offer superficial answers. I think I have never answered by explaining my deepest, truest reason – I want to grow up again. I want to grow up into a different person, using a different language.

This article in the Economist notes that being a foreigner (by choice) is a bit like returning to childhood – the world is new and fresh. This is true.

It has also been noted that when one takes up a new language, it’s like becoming a child again – not knowing how to speak or read, not being able to articulate mature thoughts, having to listen the adults/native-speakers/teachers tell you about what you did wrong. This is also true. However, in language learning circles I have usually seen this expressed as a frustration “Ahhh! I’m like a child again, I’ll never grow up, gahh!” I, on the other hand, think that this is part of why I find language learning so rewarding.

I have been able to articulate and decipher complex thoughts in the English language for a long, long time. The language is no longer fresh to me. Well, sometimes English feels just a little fresh to me when I’m with people learning English. To them, English is still a new way of expressing thoughts, and the feeling rubs off on me.

My own ‘real’ childhood was a mixed bag. There were times when I was happy, but there were also times I was very unhappy. Some of that unhappiness came from my lack of power over life. My ‘current’ childhood is much happier. I have a lot more freedom, and I am much more in control. Even learning Chinese is going much more smoothly than when I learned English (then again, I have expressive language disorder, which made learning how to speak English a bit tougher for me than most native speakers).

Sure, I didn’t particularly like being a beginner in Chinese – I actually do not find basic Chinese that interesting, and not being able to read a simple street sign is quite frustrating. But once my Chinese got to an intermediate level, I appreciated more and more of the language’s subtleties, and could start to feel a sense of wonder about it. And discovering Chinese language novels – particularly the wuxia genre – has brought back the feelings I had when I first discovered English language novels – particularly the fantasy genre. I’ve written a bit about this in my posts about Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero.

Eventually, if I keep studying and praticing Chinese, I’ll grow up an function in the language like an educated adult. Then there are the other languages in the world … I could keep returning to childhood for centuries. Obviously, since I don’t have centuries, I have to be picky. Maybe I’ll find another way to return to childhood.

However I do it, I do intend to keep returning to childhood for as long as I live.