April 6, 2018

Discovering My Voice in English

There’s one activity that I’ve been carrying on for almost 5 years now, that is to answer one question every day on my Q&A a Day, 5-year Journal. The questions vary from something as simple as “What did you have for lunch today?” to as philosophical as “What makes you happy?” I found it the easiest, if not laziest, way to keep a journal. I’m reaching 5th year now.

One night when my wife and I tried to answer it, I was fascinated by our completely opposite response of it — “What’s the new word you learned recently?” She couldn’t come up with one, I couldn’t come up with just one. She is native in both Japanese and English, I’m neither.

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Every day I encounter words I don’t know. There’s hardly a day I could go by without marking anything on the book I’m reading. Even when watching TV shows on Netflix, I would have a notebook (or any paper like receipts of lunch in my pocket) at hands to note down the words or the timestamps so I can look them up later.

This linguistic journey isn’t always that smooth, there are rainy seasons. When I saw my wife flipped through a novel during a weekend while the same book took me about 2 weeks to finish, there was a taste of frustration, to be honest.

So why am I doing this - learning new words and writing in English while I could get by every day just fine? There would be no perceivable setbacks in my professional or personal life. When I started my Writing Spree April a few days ago, I stumbled on this question myself.

I remember how it was like in the early days. Though I had the English lessons during my school years, much like how everybody treated the second language at school, I passed the tests and then forgot about it - I had no desire or need of practicing it. It was until I joined my current company that I started to relearn English, roughly 7 years ago.

Below is what it was like when I tried to read Cooking Solves Everything by Mark Bittman and The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

notes and highlights on books

The 2 books were recommended in the company at that time. I bought them on Kindle. It was tough. I rarely went through a page without colorful marks. I’m glad now I recognize most of them, but still not all.

As the time of writing, I’m reading the book Don’t sleep, there are snakes by Daniel L. Everett. Over the years I’ve changed intentionally to physical books, but what remain unchanged is the “splash patterns.”

page 99 of Don’t sleep, there are snakes photo

Judging by the numbers of marks, things don’t seem to be that different than 6 years ago. 😅 (and I’m too embarrassed to share aphoto of my wife correcting my writing - full of red marks on words, grammar, punctuations, etc. Her “writings” were more than mine, it was bloddy, you can imagine.)

Putting them together makes me even sadder as if no progress were made. I felt defeated. I couldn’t help but wonder:

Would there be a day that I don’t need to have a dictionary (app) around?
Why am I enforcing this hardship on myself?
Would there be an end?

Among all the reasons I could come up with — a way to see the world differently; explore different cultures; English is the worldwide common language; entertainment value (thanks to Holywood) — the very core of it probably is that I’ve found my voice in the language itself. A very different kind of “sound” than thinking in my mother tongue Chinese, as if I’ve found a hidden passport with new identity in the drawer that could fly me to a freeland.

Worth to mention that although I’m a Chinese Korean - I had been learning Korean from elementary school to high school and after that I once even had a partime job as a Korean-to-Chinese translator for 2 years - I never found my voice from it. Amazingly, it was familiar and foreign at the same time.

But I seem to enjoy the brand new encounter with English this time. I noticed there are times that it would be the dominant language in my mind. This kind of session usually comes after I embody myself in an English book or movie, also as of this writing. I love this narrative. It’s soothing, calm, and reflective.

It helps me classify my past traumatic stories - family conflicts, romantic relationships, identity issues. Because those events were recorded in Chinese as they occured, it was too violent, too emotional, or too embarrassed to look back and analyze them. The native language seemed to have a way too strong shock that would scare me away. But examing them with a different language, especially one that I have limited but handful enough vocabularies, helps me remapping those past dots into coordinations from a different perspective, from a relatively far distant where I feel safe and secure. This handicap works in my favor.

As of writing this post, it also forces me to think deeply and differently on this subject, probably I’m the one who gets most excited about this discovery than any of my readers (sorry!), and I have a good hunch that I’ll revisit it in the future when I get more insights of it.

Back to the question - would there be a day that I don’t need to have a dictionary? Nope. That day won’t come, and perhaps I don’t want it to come either - wouldn’t that be boring if I’ve mastered every single word? How can I answer the question in my 5-year diary then!? But seriously, much like the universe, knowing there will be unknowns means the adventure would never stop, so as the fun of it.

Bonus tip: as any language learners, we’ve got a unique advantage over others - while they might feel guilty or time-wasted after spending hours on Netflix, we could always claim it as our learning session, right? 😉

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Qihuan Piao

Qihuan Piao

(aka kinopyo) is Chinese based in Tokyo. Software writer. He shares stories inspired him in this blog. His infamous line - "I feel calm when I kill those monsters, or people (in game)" shocks his friends deeply.

He also writes in Japanese and Chinese.