Languages Are Alive

In graduate school, we read countless articles where authors offered up anxious statistics on the death of languages. We heard lecture after lecture where professors lamented the dwindling number of speakers of certain languages. I don’t share this fear. Languages are alive, and as a living thing they follow a life cycle. They are born, they grow and change, and eventually they die. Like with an ailing grandma, we will do everything we can to sustain these languages (think of the Irish with Gaelic). And like with our ancestors we will bask in there memory when they are gone. I see antiquated languages like I see the older generation: it is sad to see them go, but it would be unnatural for them to stay around forever.
Language is a catalyst for life. We use it to start relationships, make life plans, and dream dreams. A world without language would be a dark and lonely one.
So I do not fear with those who desperately hold onto a dead language, hysterically pumping life into a corpse. What I fear is when those same people, perhaps hoping to save room for their corpses, try to ban languages from growing. Pidgin languages sprout into Creoles, and Creoles bloom into complete and whole languages. Do not believe those who say we do not need new languages. Their argument is one for convenience. They say that if we simply kept the languages we have or even condensed to one global language, life would be more convenient, more understandable, and more simple. Yet what they are not thinking about is that every language has its limits. As humans we have never been able to develop or create one language that can express all emotions or situations. A second language flourishes where a first one is stunted. Limitation is in fact the inconvenience.

These two ideas; that language is alive and that each individual language is limited, come to my mind because of my interaction with one word. When I moved to Taiwan I knew 你好 hello and 謝謝 thank you. I started from square one with the Chinese language. I now see that there are two kinds of words in language: the kind you can translate literally, for instance tomato is something every language surely has a word for and it is simply learned by translation and memorization. The second kind of word is where the limitation of language comes back into play. Though every language surely has a word for tomato, each language does not have a word for every intricate and specific idea. So when my language is limited and I cannot simply translate, I have to just feel the word. This is when living in the language, become such a benefit, and this is how I learned the word “jiayou” (加油).
At first I heard this word in Taiwanese TV dramas. These dramas were filled with tired high schoolers, slaving away over mountains of homework. “Jiayou!”, parents would whisper into the high school bedrooms as their teenagers looked up drearily from their work. The subtitles always read “fighting”. This confused me. What are they fighting? Perhaps they meant “break a leg”, I thought. Later, I watched a tennis match, and the girls’ screams of “jiayou” to the sweaty men, batting the neon ball back-and-forth, further helped me to remember this word. Perhaps it meant “you can do it”, I thought to myself.
The next day, as my legs trembled and my muscles painfully stretched, the teacher said softly, “jiayou”, to the class, encouraging us to hold on for two more breaths in the strange yoga pose. “Yes,” I thought, almost toppling over on my mat, “this word is like an encouragement.”
It finally solidified in my mind, like a rock settling in the sand for the next hundred years, when I was riding a long and steep escalator. A little boy stood behind me. A staircase ran right next to us, and the boys older brother had decided to take the stairs. The older brother was running up the stairs, trying hurriedly to keep up with his brother on the escalator. The little boy rested his chin on the rubbery railing and whispered “jiayou! jiayou!” to his panting big brother, who was quietly regretting his decision to walk.
I’ll never forget this word. I didn’t have this word in English and it can’t be explained to me in my mother tongue, but I learned this word through feeling and seeing it lived out. To learn a new language, you can’t try and find a perfect translation, but instead you have to feel and experience the language as it is alive around you.
Language learning is difficult and it can feel inconvenient when two languages don’t exactly match, but the answer is not to hold on to past languages, or to condense language into one. By becoming multilingual, we are able to see our mother tongue’s limitations and more fully express all of our emotions. Now when I think of the word “jiayou” I think of the sparkle in the eye, a downward fist pump of confidence, and the smile of love that the speaker expresses. I can’t explain it to you, you have to live it yourself.


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