As I finished Haruki Murakama’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, I wish I could read Japanese and read his memoir again. Would he have a different personality in the Japanese original? How would a Japanese reader perceive him?
I remembered as a kid, I never thought about learning other languages. If it were not Hong Kong’s mandatory English and Mandarin curriculum, I probably would have a much harder time for my study in the United States or perhaps wouldn’t have pursued educational opportunities here. After seven years studying in the U.S., writing, speaking, and listening to English became a default mechanism as I opened a word document. However, looking back, I once used to write letters and diary in traditional Chinese and somewhere in the middle of my second year in the U.S., I began writing in English. Last summer, when I re-read all my diary entries, I found that in Chinese, I sounded more carefree and silly, while in English, I learned that I liked to take a more poetic voice.
I attributed these to how I used to learn English – focusing on grammar instead of articulating an idea. Part of speech, reported speech, use of conjunctions, past perfect tense vs. past tense, use of article (a vs. the), and verb with preposition made me become sensitive to all the tiny details of my readings. Using past perfect tense vs. past tense had a very subtle, yet important distinction in my concept of English (the former being a past event that significantly impacted another past event and the later being a past event that could be or not be impactful). English as a language is spatial and time-sensitive to me. In hindsight, as I was exposed more to the English writing in U.S. and began to explore writing instead of grammar, I found writing intimidating for there was not a specific set of rules for mastership. However, I like it nevertheless for its opportunity to reflect, express, and see the unseen.
Yet, after seven years of not having Chinese lessons, I miss my Chinese writing sometimes. If English were a young and energetic time-traveler, Chinese were a wise old man with each character drawing meanings from centuries of historical events and its composition. Chinese does not have a tenses but each character is both the director and actor at the same time – its meaning could stand alone or be transformed as it paired up with other characters in groups of two, three, and four. It’s full of stories.
Each language has a different texture, appealing to the ears and eyes differently. Through learning another language and writing in that language, I learned to appreciate each language much more, knowing the different characters they play. So I’m curious: If you have to be fluent in a foreign language, what would you choose and why aside from functional purpose?