7 Star Circus
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7 Star Circus

How Learning a New Language Can Change Our Mind (from My Personal Experience as An Expatriate)

Recently I have been reading the book “Lee Kuan Yew: the grand master’s insights on China, the United States, and the World”. I am impressed by the sharpness of his words and his unique perspective thanks to his Chinese racial root and decades of leading a small Asian-Pacific country working very closely with leaders in the United States and other major countries.

What particularly intrigues me is his remarks on how language affects the culture. With his office he worked against much opposition to establish English as the official language of Singapore. As he explained in multiple occasions (and paraphrased by me), they did so to increase the opportunities of attracting global talents, and also to embrace the creativity in the mentality of English.

I was reminded how I felt when I first studied English in my teens in China — as I am not a leader of a country, I draw materials from my personal experience. When I had my first contact with the mysterious and powerful English, the language made up by only twenty-six letters was totally alien to me. Why do we always have to think about the “tense” of the event before we say anything? Why is it so important to divide things we can count and things we cannot, when they are not even really strictly divisible? All these insane, random, ridiculously and unnecessarily tedious rules, together with countless words without direct translation in Chinese, representing something that did not exist in our culture, were tweaking and squeezing my Chinese brain while I tried to hug and kick English at the same time. Frankly, even today I still haven’t full-heartedly accepted all of them. I felt I was trying to grow an extra arm from my body! I still am. So it is exactly that, learning a foreign language is like growing an extra limb. It is as painfully weird and rewarding.

In my opinion, the opportunity for extra creativity lies in the contrast between the new language and the maternal language. The more different the two, the stronger the struggle for the alienness, and the bigger the gain of mind expansion.

As such, English as the solution for attracting talents and lifting the lid of creative potential is only temporary and relative. It has worked for Singapore in the past less than a century of time, a country made up mostly by three Asian ethnic groups — Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian.

Today is the first day of 2022, we are facing the same issues as a global community, the most urgent ones being climate change and pandemic. These are problems that are asking us for a new mentality. Pushing for individuality and inventiveness — like the Western world has been doing so far — is not enough any more. We need holistic thinking and the spirit of inclu. For the reality we find ourselves in today, English is not the solution any more. Especially for people living in the United States and European countries, I would say it would help for them to challenge their minds to study a truly foreign language such as Chinese. Embracing the unfamiliar and alien spirit contained in the 4000 year old language of Chinese might grow you a new arm — or leg!

You might think learning Chinese is a big challenge, but that is not the real challenge. The real challenge is that simply taking language courses is far from enough. To gain the mentality of another culture we need a solid foundation of the language skills — at least B2 or C1 level so that we could have some ease in reading and speaking that language. And on top of that we need at least 3–4 years of living in that country, being engaged full-time for either study or work, using that language as the main tool of communication on a daily base. With these requirements as the minimum, we have some chance of incorporating a new mentality.

Then, what happens is you would find suddenly you cannot understand your old friends or even your family back home any more, even if you know perfectly the meaning of their words.

Welcome to the wonderfully shitty expatriate life. You’ve made it.

Because gaining a mentality is also about losing an old one.

With all that said, learning a foreign language is still a fast and direct solution to a lot of new problems we are having now.

As Einstein said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Learning a new language is a thorough and direct way to change the way we think, before we know how to change the world as we know it.

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