A Tale of Two Languages
An American’s Perspective on Chinese and Spanish
Growing up in America as the son of a Spanish-speaking father, learning a Latin language seemed like a natural fit. Unfortunately for me, it wasn't until I was much older that I took my foreign language studies more seriously. Why? It was my passion for East Asia and the Chinese language that sparked my interest and absorbed my attention. In fact, this June marks my fourth formal year as a Chinese-language learner. Thanks to the abundance of educational offerings at the School of Oriental African Studies (SOAS), University of London where I am currently pursuing my master's degree, I have been able to deepen my Chinese language skills and reboot my Spanish speaking skills.
I consider both investments in my journey to complete my dissertation on labor rights and collective bargaining in Mexico and Vietnam. In addition to the SOAS offerings, I jumped feet first into a two-week Spanish intensive course in Madrid, Spain. The tale of these two experiences seemed worthy of sharing and I hope you will agree. Following are my personal observations on the differences, challenges, humor, and joy of learning a second language. For those bold enough to put the comfort of their native language aside to learn more about another culture through the lens of a foreign language, please feel free to share your experiences learning a second language in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from you.
Learning how to identify Chinese characters is one of the most significant challenges for native English speakers diving into the world of Chinese. While some Chinese characters may resemble the objects or concepts they represent, many characters may not seem immediately familiar to the Western eye. For instance, the character for "mountain" is 山, which bears a resemblance to the image of a mountain, making it somewhat easier to remember. However, not all characters benefit from such visual cues. An example is the Chinese word for "government", written as 政府. To the untrained Westerner, the characters appear as beautifully drawn but albeit unrecognizable drawings. Memorizing a diverse range of Chinese characters has therefore become an integral part of my language learning journey.
On the other hand, the Spanish writing system shares many similarities with English. Still, there are some important differences. The Spanish alphabet has an additional letter, ñ, which appears in words such as “España” (Spain). Spanish words are also traditionally gendered, requiring rote memorization to remember their gender assignments. Attached to words are articles that (outside a few exceptions) match their gender. For instance, “the door” (la puerta) is feminine and “the bedroom” (el dormitorio) is masculine. Articles change too depending upon if a word is singular or plural. At times article rules differ from English. For example, “the boy” or “the boys” both use the article “the” in English. However, in Spanish different articles are needed for writing “the boy” (el niño) and “the boys” (los niños).
Exploring the charms of Tianjin, China with fellow study abroad students and language instructors (Summer 2016)
Chinese, being a tonal language, requires precise pronunciation of tones for effective communication. If the tones are not correctly spoken, native Chinese speakers may struggle to understand the intended meaning of words. Chinese features four tones, each requiring a distinct vocal inflection. When beginning to learn Chinese, Western speakers (including myself!) often face considerable challenges in distinguishing between tones. This difficulty arises because English predominantly lacks a tonal-based speaking system. Take, for instance, the word "microwave”. In English, it retains the same meaning regardless of whether someone alters their vocal pitch. However, in Chinese, accurate tone usage is essential. Mispronouncing a tone can inadvertently result in completely different words. Depending upon the vocal inflection, “mama” in Chinese can either signify “mom” (妈妈) or “horse horse” (马马).
In contrast, Spanish, much like English, generally places less emphasis on tonal variations when conveying word or phrase meanings. While there are instances in which tones can make a difference, such as raising one's voice at the end of a sentence to indicate a question, the overall impact of tone is less pronounced compared to Chinese. For instance, the sentence "you want some coffee" can function as both a suggestion and a question, depending upon whether someone raises their voice. Nevertheless, the method of conveying a suggestion versus a question remains the same in both English and Spanish. The challenge for English speakers lies in adapting to the sounds of the Spanish language. Words like "economía" (economy) may appear simple to pronounce, but those that closely resemble their English counterparts can be easily mispronounced by applying English sounds instead of Spanish ones. For example, in this case, the "e" at the beginning of the word should be pronounced with the "aye" sound, as in the English "day", rather than the conventional English "e" sound.
Guizhou, China: A memorable trip with PKU School of International Studies (December 2018)
Native Speaker Adaptability
In China, it is not uncommon to encounter individuals who have never engaged in a full conversation in Chinese with a foreigner. Selecting Chinese as a second language is still a relatively new concept outside the Asia-Pacific. Despite the availability of various government-sponsored scholarship opportunities for Westerners to study Chinese in mainland China or Taiwan, the inherent challenges associated with learning the language often discourage people from taking the leap or progressing beyond the lower-intermediate level. Additionally, unlike countries such as the United Kingdom or Spain, China has not historically established a global empire. This absence of a widespread colonial legacy has predominantly confined the acquisition of Chinese to Greater China and Chinese diaspora communities. Consequently, native Chinese speakers are not accustomed to encountering learners with limited language proficiency. Therefore, Chinese language learners must take extra care to ensure their tones and grammar are accurate if they wish to engage in conversations with native speakers. In my experience, it typically takes around two years of part-time learning or four months of full-time intensive language acquisition for Westerners to reach a sufficient level of proficiency for basic communication with native Chinese speakers.
Alternatively, native English speakers often experience rapid progress in their ability to communicate in Spanish. This progress is partly influenced by native Spanish speakers' greater ease in comprehending imperfect Spanish. From my perspective, the most challenging aspect of learning Spanish is memorizing conjugations. For instance, just like in English, "visit," "visiting," and "visited" are all variations of the same word. Even when used incorrectly, many native speakers can still grasp the intended meaning of a sentence. A Spanish language learner at a lower proficiency level might mistakenly say, "I was visit my friend" instead of the correct "I was visiting my friend”. As someone who is still honing their conjugation skills, I have found it helpful to have native speakers who can understand the intended meaning of my sentences, allowing for a smoother flow in conversations.
A taste of Madrid: croquettes with the professor and classmates (July 2023)
Embarking on the journey of learning a second language is an incredibly enriching experience. I feel an immense sense of gratitude for the opportunities I've had to enhance my proficiency in both Chinese and Spanish. Each language brings its own set of challenges, but they also open a whole new world of communication possibilities. During my time in China, one of my most treasured activities was engaging in discussions about global affairs with taxi drivers, a frequent topic of conversation once they discovered I was an international relations graduate student at Peking University (PKU). Similarly, although my Spanish language journey has been relatively shorter, the ability to communicate with native Spanish speakers from diverse countries while studying in Madrid has its own special significance. It is hard to put into words just how rewarding it feels to learn a second language and develop effective communication skills after dedicating oneself to the necessary effort. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to embark on this journey and experience the remarkable sense of accomplishment and connection it brings.
About the author:
Alexander Parini is an academic, writer, and consultant with a focus in economic development. Currently based in London, he is pursuing his second master's degree in Research for International Development at SOAS University of London. For over three years Alexander has been an active member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam.
He previously lectured at multiple universities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam where he primarily taught international studies classes. In 2020, he completed his Master's in International Relations at Peking University in Beijing, China. Before moving to Asia, he worked in U.S. politics and studied Political Science at Portland State University.