Read an Excerpt
In the summer of 2000, I was in Nanchang, a fairly large city in southeast China that isn’t exactly what I’d call a popular tourist destination. I’d spent the dayon the road, stuck in the back of a sweltering bus that had broken down not once, but twice, and I hadn’t eaten anything all day but some stale Chips Ahoy cookies I’d found in the bottom of my backpack. I was tired and cranky in the way that only those afflictedwith bad luck and low blood sugar can be.
By the time I got into town, I wanted one thing, and one thing only: a plate of dumplings the size of my head.
As soon as I got off the bus, I dropped my pack at a hotel and went to the first restaurant I saw. I knew from experience that it was pointless to try to decipher a Chinese menu in my exhausted state, so I swallowed my pride, went up to the hostess, and very politely asked for an English menu.
“Ni you méiyou yingwén de càidan?”
The hostess responded with an expression that, sadly, I knew all too well: she had no idea what I was trying to say.
And I knew exactly what the problem was.
When you begin a course in Mandarin, one of the first things you learn is that the meaning of any given sound changes depending on your tone. Anyone with a mother is, of course, familiar with the linguistic peril of tone, but different languages use tone differently. In English, tone–or, more properly, intonation–usually applies to an entire thought: we pitch our voices up at the end of a question or we use monotone to convey sarcasm. In Chinese, however, tone can change the meaning of the words themselves. A single syllable–ma, to use the standard example–can mean mother, hemp, horse, or scold, depending on whether the tone of the word holds steady, rises, dips, or falls.
When I got to China, I discovered that the first tone, the hold-steady tone, gave me all kinds of trouble. To really nail it, you have to speak it much higher than you expect, until you almost feel like you’re singing the word. Unfortunately, singing isn’t exactly my forte: the higher register of my voice can kindly be called “shrill.” So every time I had to say a word with that troublesome high hold-steady tone, I would hold back a bit and try to get away with a nice, non-offensive contralto.
Which meant that every time I tried to say something with this first tone–in particular, the “dan” of càidan–I got it awesomely wrong. Like, first—round—of—American Idol wrong. So it wasn’t at all surprising that the nice woman at the hostess podium had no idea what I was saying.
It had been happening for over a month at that point.
Before I traveled to China, I’d studied Mandarin for a year–two hours a day, five days a week–and I’d thought I was well prepared. I knew how to ask directions to a train station, bus stop, or Internet café.
I was ready to yell at cab drivers and politely decline souvenirs, solicitations, and marriage proposals. But once I got there, my brain was fogged full of semi-familiar words and phrases, riddled with grammatical minutiae. Nothing came out the way I intended it to. My speech was an explosive mess.
I’d somehow managed to keep my spirits up for nearly a month as I blustered about, more often than not resorting to pantomime and occasionally to outright bribery to get a point across. I’d bungled conversations with government agencies, underground religious groups, and small children who were convinced I was some kind of monster, but until I got to Nanchang, I’d managed to keep my optimism intact, usually by reminding myself that I would never have to see these witnesses to my linguistic humiliationagain. But that nameless, menuless eatery finally didme in. I was willing to admit defeat: I was total crap at Chinese. Not for the first time, I felt the bone-deep weariness of being a stranger in a strange-language land.
But I’d come this far, so I made one last, desperate effort–“càiDAN!”–pitching my voice so high on the last syllable that I sounded like I’d been punched in the stomach.
A silence fell over the restaurant. The hostess furrowed her brow, the diners exchanged puzzled glances over their plates, and I resigned myself to yet another night alone in my hotel room, dining on chocolate chips and failure. But then, out of nowhere, a waitress in the back yelled “Càidan! Zhèige hen dà de wàiguorén yào yigè càidan!”
The huge foreigner wants a menu. I was so pleased I’d been understood, I almost forgot to blush.
• • •
Those of us in possession of the wallflower gene know that the world is full of special hells: communal showers; mandatory company parties; high school. And then there’s travel. Travel’s tricky, because unlike, say, high school, it can actually be simultaneously enjoyable and enlightening. But learning to speak a new language and engage with a new culture is a veritable minefield of potential misunderstandings and compromising situations. When you travel, you’re not just paying for the privilege of seeing and experiencing new things, but also for the opportunity to make an ass of yourself.
Fortunately, there’s another way. You don’t have to jam yourself into a coach-class seat and sweat over itineraries and etiquette to get to know the languages and cultures of the world. Nor do you have to have a healthy trust fund or a perfect credit score. All you have to do is let go of those traumatic memories of mind-numbing middle-school Spanish class. Because once you’re out of school, freed from the shackles of prescriptive grammar and college admissions requirements, the burden of language study gives way to the singular pleasures of language exploration–and the chance to discover the stunning diversity of human language and culture without even leaving the comfort of your own home. World travel isn’t an option for everyone; word travel, on the other hand, is.
I think it’s fair to say that I don’t pick up languages. If anything, I roll around in them gracelessly and pray that something sticks. I speak halting Italian, and I rarely use French except as a way to swear at other drivers without fear of reprisal. I’ve stopped telling people that I studied Chinese because I’m sick of having to concoct plausible translations when asked to decipher calligraphy. Once I put Ancient Greek on my résumé. In high school. When I was applying for a job at Blockbuster Video. And then spent a summer being mercilessly teased for it. (“Thank god you’re here, Elizabeth–we always wondered what we’d do if Plato applied for a membership.”) Ever since, I’ve really tried to avoid the subject of Ancient Greek altogether.
Even so, languages are, without question, the great compulsion of my life.
My introduction to foreign languages came courtesy of my father, who, being a dutiful Canadian, felt it necessary to teach me a few key words in French. As such, I learned to say my name, to count, and to properly pronounce “Jean Béliveau.” Much to my dismay,however, my study proved to be of little practical use. (St. Louis doesn’t exactly have a thriving Francophone community.) Even when I did get the opportunity to practice my French on a family vacation to Europe, I was shockingly unable to strike up a single conversation about my name or knowledge of ice-hockey history. My taste for linguistic impracticality didn’t get me into any real trouble until the fourth grade, when my elementary school decided–for reasons I suspect had less to do with staff qualifications than uppity parental demands–to start teaching us Latin. For the most part, class consisted of reviewing fancy Latinate vocabulary and learningabout vomitoria. We did, however, get the occasional actual Latin grammar lesson, and it was during one of these lessons that my latent love of languages truly came into view.
We were learning, appropriately enough, the conjugation of the verb “to love”: amare. To the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance.
I’d never conjugated a verb before–not formally, in any case–and it triggered something deep in some anal-retentive cortex of my brain. After years of adopting and discarding a series of halfhearted hobbies (bugs, dinosaurs, ghostbusting), I’d found my focus. It helped that I always enjoyed learning things by rote–and languages offered a nearly unlimited supply of potential memorization. But, more important, I loved a good mystery. My heroes were Harriet the Spy, Hercule Poirot, the entire cast of Clue. And a foreign language is like a mystery, a code to be cracked, a secret I could share in.
In other words, I was done for.
I made lists of languages that I wanted to learn by the time I was fifteen, twenty, twenty-five (the mostdistant age I could imagine at the time). I dreamt of keeping multilingual diaries so as to confound even the cleverest snoops. I made up my own languages,
which I practiced on my cats.
Shortly thereafter, I purchased my first foreignlanguage dictionary, a slim volume of German and English that I ordered by mail. When it was delivered, my mother said to me, quite reasonably I think, “Just what do you think you’re going to do with that?”
“Learn German,” I said.
“But why?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Why not?”