It has been a while since I profiled a multilingual person. You might remember Maria “going home” to English instead of Spanish, Jeremy describing the challenges of learning Kyrgyz, and Jordi reflecting on “foreignerisms” arising among non-native speakers.
Here I am happy to introduce my friend Sane, a multilingual Vancouverite originally from Taiwan.
First, can you tell us the story of your name?
My Chinese name is Yù-Shān Lài, which is not so easy for non-Chinese speakers to pronounce. In Chinese, there are 5 tones which is something that other languages don’t have and also some sounds that don’t exist in other language systems. Therefore, when we start to learn English in school, we all get an English name which is easier and can be pronounced correctly in English.
When I was in school, my teacher gave me a name, Sandy, because it’s a popular, usual and easy to pronounce English name. But whoever has a Chinese name that contains San, Shan or Shai gets the same name, Sandy. And as I grew up, because the name is so popular, we got like 3 Sandys in the same class, and I became Sandy1, Sandy2 or Sandy3 instead of just Sandy. And that’s when I decided to change my English name.
An English name to us is like a nickname, it’s not official at all, and it certainly does not appear on our legal IDs or paper. So it was not hard for me to change my English name. And I also decided to have a meaningful and unique name so that I won’t ever be XXX no. 2 or 3 again. As you can see now, Sane is a very unusual and unique name, and I love it.
What languages do you speak, and how confident do you feel in each of them?
Mandarin 100%. Taiwanese 90%. English 75%. Japanese (when I traveled in Japan 50%, now 10%)
What are the differences between Taiwanese and Mandarin?
Mandarin is the official language we speak in Taiwan and it can be written. Taiwanese is more like a dialect. It can be written but we can only use Chinese characters to describe the same sound. I don’t think there is actually Taiwanese in written form.
What are the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin?
Cantonese and Mandarin share the same characters but in different pronunciations. The same character has the same meaning. For instance, the character 好 means ‘good’ in both Cantonese and Mandarin. But the pronunciation in Cantonese is “Ho”, and in Mandarin is “How”.
Sometimes we can describe the same thing in different ways. For instance, “wait a minute”, in Cantonese is 等一陣, and in Mandarin is 等一下. Most of time, we can understand each other when we read but not when we speak.
But even though we share the same characters, sometimes the meaning of the combination changes too. For instance, “thank you”, in Cantonese could be 唔該. 唔 means no, 該 means should. So, if I don’t understand Cantonese at all, I won’t be able to understand this sentence even when I read, because “thank you” in Mandarin looks like this, 謝謝.
Japanese is from a totally different language family than Mandarin or Taiwanese, and I believe the grammar is very different. How was your experience of learning it?
I watch a lot of Japanese shows with Chinese subtitles. But Japanese is hard to me because there are different ways to say the exact same thing in terms of ages. For instance, as simple as “thank you”, to say it to an elder and to say it to a person who is younger or your age could be different.
Like in English, verbs change for tenses. In Chinese, we simply add the time marker at the end of the sentences. And also, in Japanese, if there is a verb in a sentence, the verb goes the end of the sentence. For instance, “I wrote a letter yesterday” in Japanese, is like “Yesterday I a letter wrote.” which is also very different from Chinese grammar.
Overall, it is not easy and there are a lot of differences but it’s been very fun for me to learn language as well as the culture.
What’s the weirdest thing about English to you?
Well, there are a lot! Beyond the pronunciation and spelling, the weirdest thing is that there are a lot of made-up words and it just makes my life harder. In Chinese, if you learned the characters, you can combine them and the words (or sentences) would make sense. But in English, people just invent another word to describe the same thing.
For example, “movie” in Chinese is “電影”, 電 means electronic, 影 means shadow, and that’s what “movie” is, right?
Another example, “vacuum” in Chinese is “吸塵器”, 吸 means suck, 塵 means dust, 器 means machine. In Chinese, you learn 3 words to understand what it is, but in English, even if you know suck, dust, and machine, you still don’t know what vacuum means!
Any reflections on learning languages?
I think it’s fun and I think people really appreciate when they find out that you can speak even just a little bit of their languages. And it opens a door to a different world.
Thank you for your reflections, Sane!