A polyglot is someone who is fluent in multiple languages. In an age of global travel and connection, a polyglot enjoys growing respectability, because he or she is able to live with ease across many boundaries. For all its romance, though, the word polyglot seems as ugly as its opposite “monolingual.” “Monolingual” describes someone who speaks no other language than his mother tongue. The mono sounds like a medical term denoting a certain physical handicap or condition. Intellectually, the monolingual tends to take what he or she has absorbed at his mother lap for granted. The language defines or confines the person’s whole world. So much so that the name of the rose is not just a name, a symbol or sign, but feels and smells like a real rose.
The following anecdote illustrates how one can take signs for reality. Four ladies from four European nationalities are traveling in a train. When water is served, the English lady wonders aloud why the French call it “ de l’eau.” The French lady, finding this hard to stomach, quickly retorts, ”How can it be other than de l’eau!” The Italian lady feels that both are crap and cuts in: “It should be and is in fact “ del’ acqua.” The German lady, feeling slighted, says it should be “ das wasser.” Extremely exasperated, the empirical English lady gives a resounding verdict: “Only we English people properly call it “water.” Not only do we call it water; it IS water!”
For the English lady, there is wateriness contained in the word “water.” By the same logic, the word “dog” must embody the substance of doggedness, inherent in the very shape and sound of “dog.” But as modern linguistics has shown, the reason why “dog” can mean a certain four legged, furry, domestic animal is that “dog” is distinguished by an arbitrary arrangement from, say, “cock.” Arbitrary means there is no valid reason in reality to be sought concerning why the word “dog” sounds and shapes like it does in English. It is the system of an infinite chain of differences that establish “dog” as meaning a dog out there, not any essence of doggedness inherent in that name.
To think of one’s own language as a straight and open book of nature or reality, and the only book there is, is to risk hanging on to one’s own language as the Language of Truth. For what could be more natural and authentic than a language that speaks the voice of nature? But a view ignores the fact that language, the one we are brought up on, often distorts and misshape our perception and understanding. A language may be a prison-house, but in taking it to be the world, one mistakes the prison house for the temple of truth. Now, to find an exit out of this self-confinement, there is no better way than studying a foreign language.
Learning English allows me to break out of the one-sidedness and self confinement of the Chinese language. On the other hand, I am able to see the limits of English. I find myself hovering between two languages. Both my Chinese and English begin to contest in this in-between space. This fluid space may be insecure, precarious or unsettling, but it is also mobile, dynamic, liberating. Whenever I use English I know it is a loaned language, mindful that I am plugged into a culture I have acquired by years of study. The Chinese side would cast a sideway glance at English, cautioning: Watch out for the traps of English. Playing English off against Chinese or other way around, there would be less danger of propping up an inflated ego about one’s mother tongue as the language of truth.
Shakespeare said, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Somewhat like the hard-nosed, empirical English lady, Shakespeare is saying that the sweet fragrance of a rose is what makes a rose a rose, regardless of any empty label a person may put on it. But in suggesting that the essence of a rose is its sweetness, not its name, Shakespeare is imposing an aesthetic of sweetness onto the rose, or quietly smuggling his own cultural presuppositions into it. In other languages or cultures, the rose may not smell as sweet as in the English language. At least it may not emit the kind of smell and beauty associated with moonlight, rosy faces, romance or heart-softening love. Classical Chinese poetry delights in floral images, but traditional Chinese poets seemed never able to smell, much less applaud, the scent of a rose. Some modern Chinese writers, imbibing western traditions and enamored of romanticism, managed to train their noses to smell the rose’s romantic sweetness, but in Chinese literature, the rose is sicklied over with a pale cast of melancholy. It is the lotus that smells good in Chinese culture, refreshing and ethereal, not the rose. If anything, rosy images have English language to thank for to smell so sweet, and this grace is missing in Chinese. This may happen even in English. I have heard that some monolingual English speakers, though not allergic to romantic roses, find the smell of a real rose utterly revolting.