Friday, January 22, 2010

Speaking Chinese...

"You're speaking Chinese again", a friend told me the other day. I wasn't actually speaking Chinese, but in the language she was using, 'to speak Chinese' stands for saying something that cannot be understood. It's an idiom, but a revealing one. The way we speak, even if we do not mean it, often indicates a variety of things:
  • how certain groups or certain differences have been constructed in that language and the ethics surrounding this construction;
  • how we, as individuals, may consciously or not buy into these constructs, often perpetuating a problematic construction of difference as something to be feared, as something that cannot be surmounted, as something that has to be avoided at all costs.
When 'speaking Chinese' comes to stand for 'saying something that cannot be understood', the underlying implication is that Chinese is an exotic language that cannot be understood. Something that is so different that it becomes incomprehensible.

This is an interesting construction of difference - and I'd be curious to hear if this idiom has any sense at all in English or if readers can relate to it in any way. Here, difference comes to stand for something so apart from our ways of understanding the world, that it can no longer be made sense of.

As we learn our languages, with their biases and suggested views of the world, we also learn how to categorize the world. With this problematic idiom, Chinese comes to constructed as something incomprehensible. It is an exotic Other with whom we can have little if any rapport.

Such a viewpoint may often frame the way we come to relate to individuals we identify as belonging to the group. Often times, the incomprehensibility becomes a source of patronizing irony: "It's in Chinese, so you won't understand a thing, but it sounds so funny!". If you've ever seen someone of Asian background for whom English is not the first language trying to explain something, while other English speakers keep laughing at every word, then you know what I'm talking about. It is interesting though to think about how our perception of difference is informed by such an intricate web of cognitive, linguistic and social dynamics.

Photo credits: Steve Snodgrass

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