Language, Luck, and Lures
Songhe Wang (China)
Patricia Adams Farmer (Ecuador)
My Partner: English Language
by Songhe Wang
Yesterday, as I was reading an English excerpt of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and listening to the song Dancing Barefoot in English for the first time, an idea occurred to me: what would my world be like if I had not learned English in my childhood?
The late 1970s was an especially difficult period in China. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had ended. Schools, which had been dismissed during that time, came back, and courses once banned were restored as well, including English language education. I was a lucky girl, as I had chance of meeting one of the most charming languages in the world: English.
My English teacher, who had been a factory worker, had been chosen to be in a training class for those who would work as English teachers. In other words, my teacher and some others spent a few months learning English. Then they began to teach us English. You can easily imagine what my English class was like. Looking back, I would call the English taught in my class Chinese –style English. By Chinese–style, I mean my teacher’s pronunciation was far beyond correct or understandable. (It was not her fault. She just learned English for a few months. In today’s words, she was like an instant noodle/fast food.); By Chinese-style, I also mean the content of what I learned. For example: Long long live Chairman Mao, Red Star village, comrade, worker, peasant, soldier…
Even so, the English education I received opened a door for me to see the world. In 1984, I passed the national exams for college, and good luck struck me again---my major was English language and literature. During my four-year year college life, my English competence improved greatly.
What’s more, I had opportunities to meet great people in the world and could have dialogues with them in their own language, directly. For instance, I met Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, etc. Their works not only improved my English language, but also broadened my vision of the world and of human beings. I, as a human being, was improved inwardly. Take Mark Twain for example. I like his humor very much: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”; “Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.” I also like what Emerson said: “People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.”
Since graduation from college, I have been teaching English and working as an English editor. Through English I have made friends with people in Australia, Canada, Britain, America, Israel…Sometimes I count my friends instead of money. I have developed a habit of reading some English every day in my spare time for fun and health. It is believed that reading can maintain as well as promote mental health. And I often listen to English songs. I like Amazing Grace, Music of the Night, The Rose, What a wonderful World…So when I say English is my partner, I don’t think you will think I am exaggerating.
I like this: The test of a modern society capable of meeting change with accelerated evolution instead of revolution does not lie in asking, “Is everybody happy?”, but rather, “Is everyone learning?” To be learning is not only a condition for survival; it is also the basis for being richly alive. My English learning experiences have improved that. Sure, without English, I could still live and work, but I dare say that my life would be less colorful and rich. In a word, I owe part of my open and cheerful personality to my nice partner, English language.
The Meaning of Mañana
by Patricia Adams Farmer
Language opens up things, like keys to entirely new worlds. After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Chinese culture gave way to fresh possibilities for young women of that time, like Songhe Wang. Songhe would learn English, a language that would open up enlivening new worlds for her in literature, music , and friendship. She would go on to be a professor of English, opening up new worlds for her lucky students. Those of us in the West are much richer for hearing Chinese voices like Songhe’s. It opens up new worlds for us, too.
Living in South America, I do appreciate Songhe’s experience of learning another language. While my struggle with Spanish does not compare with her mastery of English, I do understand how a new language can open up a new world and how, without it, as she says, “life would be less colorful and rich.”
Songhe has spent time in English-speaking countries, and that makes a difference. Once you visit or live in a culture where the language is spoken, you become more attune the nuances of a language set in context of culture. But you also learn a lesson in philosophy--that is, about the slippery nature of language itself.
For example, most people know that the Spanish word “mañana” means “tomorrow.” However, when you live in Latin America that ostensible one-to-one meaning falls apart the first day your arrive You discover very quickly that mañana does not usually mean tomorrow at all. It simply means “not today.” So when the plumber says he will be back mañana to fix the leaky faucet, it could mean tomorrow, but more likely it means next week or even next month. It might even mean, “I shall never return, Señora, but I do not have the heart to tell you this, so I will say, mañana.”
Whitehead believed that words, as the poets have always known, are fundamentally analogical, imprecise, never quite true but—not to be discouraged--proposing truth. Words are “propositions,” to use Whiteheadian language—“lures for feeling.” Poets love this, and so do I. But don’t try to grab hold of words too tightly or they will, like the word “mañana,” slip away into next week.
The wonderful thing about language—your own or a new one—is that language is always alive, evocative, fresh. That’s why sacred texts are so enduring and exciting to study and explore. That’s why poets choose words carefully, treating every word as a precious, mysterious, unfolding world of meaning. That’s why learning a new language opens up a life with color and richness for people like Songhe and me.
And who knows? Words can surprise us. Sometimes the “lure for feeling” is simply hope, anticipation, yearning for what is possible. The plumber might actually show up tomorrow.