Foreign Tongues

Although the words may be the same, the sound of a foreign language is distinct when heard abroad or from one’s hometown.  I have lived the majority of my life in Vancouver, where we take pride in our multiculturalism, so I have heard many different languages spoken in the streets.  I have also been exposed to foreign languages when travelling, which has led me to believe that the auricular effect of language affects our perception of it.

As a child, I was enrolled in a year of stumbling through basic Italian words and phrases.  Most of the children were of Italian descent and I was the only Asian child in the room, however, I was able to learn the basics of the language with some speed.  We are all blank slates; with the right instruction, every language can feel native.

Fast forward about fifteen years and I hurtling across the Italian countryside, aboard a packed train heading towards Sondrio.  I recognized only a few words, but the same homely feeling washed over me as I remembered the classes in the Italian Cultural Center back at home.  The very next day, I visited one of the top attractions in Italy, the Duomo in Milan.  As one of the largest cathedrals in the world, it attracted tourists from around the world.  As I strained to hear the Italian words out of the mouths of the the various vendors and hustlers over the hubbub of all the other languages, I realized that the warm feeling was gone.  Obviously, Italian still sounded natural in this area, but there was a huge difference in the abrupt and snappy Italian I heard in the square when compared to the Italian I heard on the train, small towns, and community centers.  I feel that languages lose their truest sensations when mixed in such a multicultural space.

I was brought up speaking Cantonese (a dialect of Chinese) to my grandparents and English at home.  My Cantonese isn’t perfect but my relatives have told me that my tone and speech lack an Westernized accent, so I could pass off as a native of Hong Kong.  Cantonese in Vancouver, while an extremely common language, still feels foreign.  In schools, it is discouraged to communicate in a language other than English, so many who have grown up in the Canadian education system probably hold the same feelings as mines.  Even though the Cantonese population is strong in Vancouver (20-30% by my estimation), the language is a bit villainized.  When I was in Hong Kong, a place where Cantonese dominates other languages, it was my English that sounded harsh and foreign.  Cantonese seamlessly merged with Hong Kong culture and the one-syllable utterances were perfect for the hectic Hong Kong lifestyle.  No matter how multicultural the city, foreign languages will often feel foreign.

One of the things that constantly amazes me is the differing tones of each language.  In my conversations with non-Asian friends, they tell me spoken Cantonese sounds angry.  Cantonese, being one of my native tongues, doesn’t have a harsh ring to me.  I understand that the people uttering these words are partly responsible for the tone, but the general perception of Cantonese is harsh.  Unlike the many rolling vowels and softer sounds of Italian, Cantonese is composed of shorter one-syllable characters that often require the speaker to utter numerous syllables before completing a word.  Rarely does a Cantonese-speaker linger on syllables to create the longer words that are common in Italian.  I have my appreciation for both languages, but Italian is definitely easier on the ears.

Out of all the languages that I have heard, I enjoy listening to Hawaiian and French.  Hawaiian language are filled with vowels and the natives of this island tend to speak slower.  The result is a undulating language that has a truly calming effect on the ears. “Ohana”, the word for family, is a central part of Hawaiian culture and vocabulary.  It also helps that “Aloha” is an appropriate greeting wherever you go in this state.  Hawaiian street names can be twenty characters long and impossible to pronounce, but I like how the streets pay homage to the actual language.  It is a nightmare for tourists to find the right street names when the seventh vowel is a “o” not a “u”, or the 10th “h” in the word mixes with the 9th, but like many things in Hawaii, “A `ole pilikia”.

Canadian education has a requirement to learn a second language and all public schools offer French as a second language.  I believe it is mandatory in elementary school to take around 4 years of French, but in secondary school, students have an option to learn other languages.  I stuck with French for eight years, even though other languages were available  and I still enjoy listening to the language.  The French I learnt in school is nothing compared to the language in France, where the speed and vocabulary made it hard to grasp.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the challenges in deciphering the words and found that French pop music is pretty catchy.

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