'Chinese New Year always means spring rolls. Grace loves them. I brought some so she could share her favourite food with her friends.'
My mum stood in my classroom with a tray. She had volunteered to talk about Chinese New Year to my primary class and had practised that line the night before with my dad as an encouraging audience. My friends snickered and made no move to take the spring rolls my mum had got up so early to make that morning. The only interest they had in Chinese culture was about the pandas who had recently been introduced to Edinburgh Zoo. Still, her smile remained bright as she beckoned me: 'Why don't you get yours first Grace?' Except she used my Chinese name '长诗' (Changshi). I cringed and my face went red with shame.
'Changy? What's that?'
'Did her mum just call her Ching Chong?'
'I bet those spring rolls have dog in them.'
'I bet they eat the pandas too.'
And just like that, Chinese terrified me.
As a child, I often felt ashamed of my parents' accented English and foreign mannerisms. At school events I would beg my parents not to come: people would realise how different I was – as if it wasn't already obvious. My language was something foreign. Something different. Something other than English.
Nowadays, English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From humble beginnings on the edge of an insignificant European archipelago, it grew to a vast size of impressive influence. For the 350 million people who speak it as their first language, a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. No other language has been used by so many or controlled a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international recognition, a parent's dream and a student's nightmare. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, diplomacy, science, stellar navigation, pop music, technology. And everywhere it ventures, it leaves behind a trail of destruction: cultures crushed, literatures mangled, languages forgotten.
We are in a fragile time of change with roughly 40% of the world's languages endangered, often with fewer than 1,000 speakers remaining. Meanwhile, just 23 languages account for more than half the world's population. While the globalisation of English undoubtably has its benefits, we must be careful not to get caught up in the arrogance of our supremacy. This undisputed reign has been at the cost of the lives of other languages. In a linguistic context, language death equates to the lack of speakers of a language.
The year 2010 saw the death of Boa Senior, the last living speaker of Aka-Bo, a tribal language native to the Andaman Islands. With her, she took a 65,000-year link to one of the world's oldest cultures. Boa Senior survived the 2004 tsunami, the Japanese occupation of 1942 and the barbaric policies of British colonisers.
Narayan Choudhary, a linguist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: 'To me, Boa Senior epitomised a totality of humanity in all its hues and with a richness that is not to be found anywhere else'. Her death is not merely the death of a language but the loss of culture, identity and diversity. And a language dies every two weeks.
While bilingualism and multilingualism are the social norm in a whole raft of countries – with English usually being one of the languages – the monolingualism of the United States, Australia and Britain is far from the international norm.
The flight from Edinburgh to Qing Dao has two layovers; and every airport has employees who can speak a minimum of two languages. Yet, in Edinburgh, English is the only accepted language. Foreigners adapt to our linguistic uselessness, but it leaves us looking arrogant and impolite. It is easy to write off additional languages as unnecessary in the age of technology, but multilingualism has also been shown to have many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages. Language-learning forces reflection both on how we ourselves think and communicate, and how others think. Language teaches culture implicitly.
Frankly, I believe that languages should be at the very heart of educational systems. Learning languages disables our habit of skipping over differences and failing to understand others. You cannot achieve fluency in another language without learning its speakers' perspectives: enriching your own mind. You see the world with better eyes.
Now when I am heard speaking Chinese, people gush that they 'wish they could speak another language'. And, the thing is, you can
. And you should
. Learning another language will expand your knowledge and your intelligence. It may take two years of hard work and constant practice to learn a language. To maintain it, it will take only one hour a week of conversation or foreign-language television. Yet it will benefit you for the rest of your life.
It is up to our generation to save languages. However, this rescue will not be easy. To save a language you must get linguists into the field, support the community with language teachers, publish dictionaries, write textbooks for schools – and all in the span of a couple of years. The fight for languages is a race against time. However, there are already organisations who are devoted to the preservation of languages like the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) based in Britain. If we really want to make change, we need to raise awareness and increase funding.
Last week, a group of Chinese head teachers visited my high school to educate themselves on Western education. I was the translator. My classmates admired my smooth transition from English to Chinese and I felt proud. Chinese no longer feels like a burden but is instead the greatest gift I have ever received. The joy of another language shouldn't just be restricted to people who grew up with foreign language speaking parents but should be integrated in all aspects of today's society, just like English is part of countless other countries' lifestyles.
If we want to keep up in the race of the modern world, we need to match the pace of the rest of the world. And the first step is learning a new language. Your passion for speaking another language is your way of saying that the history and diversity of the world matters.
Don't worry about the pandas. They already speak Chinese.