Our attitude towards others, and therefore our ability to access what they know, is shaped by how we feel about them. And the way we feel about people is shaped by how we feel about the language that they speak.
Here is a random piece of Chinese text taken from the Internet. Assuming you don’t read Chinese, how does it make you feel? What are your immediate thoughts and emotional reactions?
Most non-Chinese speakers say their first thought is: “I can’t understand that,” which makes them feel vulnerable, suspicious, defensive and afraid. Perhaps you’ve had this experience with people talking near you in a language you don’t understand. A Dean at Duke University was dismissed from her post not long ago for writing to international students asking them not to speak in their native languages on campus because it made English-speakers uncomfortable.
If – despite your desire to be outward looking, open-minded and inclusive – that is how a language makes you feel, building any real connection with the speakers of that language will be nigh on impossible.
What if I told you that this Chinese character “人“ means ”person”? Do you see, it looks like a simple representation of a person taking a step?
Now if we have a look at that text again, I’m guessing you’re thinking “I can see ‘person’ there, and there, and there!”
The text has not changed. And your knowledge has barely changed – I’ve only taught you one word. But your emotional response is completely different, and much more conducive to building real human connections.
What is it that has changed the way you feel?
It is simply a shift in perspective: instead of focusing on all the things you cannot understand, you are now focusing on the few things that you can.
We are used to hearing about language being a barrier. There is surely no more famous barrier in the world than the Great Wall of China, and perhaps no greater language barrier than that between those who speak Mandarin Chinese and those who don’t. And yet, whilst there maybe 10,000 miles of wall, there are also a 1,000 gateways through it. Whether we choose to look at the threatening wall or the welcoming gateways is up to us.
”Wo Hui” is Mandarin Chinese for “I can” because we are concerned with how you feel about what you know, however much or little that is. Because our ability to access the Chinese world is first and foremost a matter of emotion, and that is determined by our perspective.
To read more about how different Chinese is as a language, click here.