kaigou: (1 Izumi)
[personal profile] kaigou
I've finally put a finger on what has me so entranced when watching media (shows, animation, etc) that's in a different language. At first, I thought: this is a kind of astonishment. Then I censored myself immediately, because wow, that sounds offensive -- if you twist it to the side, it could be saying: "wow, people have entirely different languages and they still communicate such complex ideas" which is not at all what I mean.

I've probably told some of you this story before, but when I lived in France, I recall spending the afternoon with a teacher's two children. Aged, hm, three and five, maybe? They had a globe, and one of them asked where I lived, so I put a finger on their hometown, and another on mine. There was a lot of blue-colored map between the two places, and the kids were suitably impressed.

However, somehow this raised the question of why (in their opinion) I couldn't speak French as well as the other adults they knew. Maybe, they appeared to be reasoning, it was because Americans were bad at talking. I said no, in America, we speak English.

Long pause. Skeptical looks.

"No, you speak French," they said. "Everyone speaks French."

"Not in the United States," I replied. "There, we don't speak French. We speak English."

Skeptical looks turned to absolute disdain, because now they were quite certain I was putting them on. There went all my credibility.

Later I asked their mom, who said that it's a developmental stage, related to the size of the kid's world, and the fact that they assume what they see around them is an example of everything, everywhere. It takes time and experience before we start to realize the world is a much bigger place than our little corner of it.

Watching foreign shows, or trying to read a manga in Taiwanese (or, ugh, Cantonese), makes me feel like my world has gotten even bigger. Or maybe it's that it makes me feel just that many times smaller. Like: these people are talking, and there's a whole way of writing, of conjugating verbs, of expressing the self, and I understand none of it. Chances are, I will never understand more than maybe "please" and "thank you" and "yes" and "no" and how to say "hello" on the phone. If that much. But people express ideas and emotions and my corner -- the English corner -- has no impact, no value, in this conversation.

It's a kind of reminder of humility. It's also sometimes incredibly frustrating, because it feels insurmountable. It feels like I will never, ever truly be able to read Mandarin (certainly not with the ease that I once read, spoke, or wrote French), but will always have to stop every few characters to try and rearrange the characters into my head, tossing them back and forth until they finally click, and even then feeling like I must've missed so much. Like there's this whole world out there, in Mandarin (or Korean, or Portuguese, or Swedish, or any of hundreds and hundreds of other languages) of which I can only just barely get the teeniest edge.

But it's also, oddly, lonely. Is it something in our upbringing, or our personality, that makes us react differently to meeting someone whose primary thought processes were shaped by a language not our own? I've met plenty of people (in several countries, of course including my own) who react with indignant superiority if you can't speak the local language flawlessly. Then there's the reaction next to that, which is to be amused or impressed by someone's attempt. That's the talking monkey syndrome: "oh, look, it talks!" and that's all, with no regard for the monkey's attempt to actually communicate.

Me, I feel inferior, sometimes, and envious, and sometimes curious. How much of the world am I missing, because I am trapped within only one way of comprehending anyone's attempt at communication? How much is out there that I can't see, can't read, can't understand, because I only have this one way of talking to the world? And... how on earth, really, did this person go from that language to this language, and achieve fluency? What hides within them that could bridge that gap, that I don't have?

Yes, I know, on a practical level, that immersion is a huge part of it. (It certainly was in France, arriving with a year of classes and leaving pretty damn fluent.) But it's more than that, since I've met people who've lived overseas for years, who've never gotten past the barest minimum needed to communicate. There's got to be something else going on, either some willingness to adopt/adapt, but also -- it seems to me -- something else, too. Maybe something innate, of upbringing or personality, that can move from the shape of the primary language and accept the unfamiliar shape of the new language.

Strangely (or not so much), I find this impacting me online, too. In any given day, over my career, the language spoken around me is English. But then, while seeking out Chinese scans, I've ended up on 115 and weibo (Chinese sites) where I'm absolutely baffled by whatever the site's trying to tell me. It's a constant struggle to deal with the interface. The alert boxes that are a) in flash or equivalent, such that I can't copy/paste, and b) disappear after a single second such that I can't even pause to read slowly. (I've gotten pretty good at screenshots, timing it for the split-second I see the alerts, so that I can then read at my own speed.) There are entire chunks of text and buttons on weibo and 115 that are flash-based, or image-based, that I can't copy over into a text-editor to slowly parse on my own. And neither flash nor images will enlarge so I can see the characters better, to figure out whether that's 究 or 突. At least the navigation (and icons) are basically structured the same as Western architectural standards, or I'd be utterly lost.

It makes me wonder, from this place of seeing the world almost entirely through one language, how much I take for granted -- in terms of expecting other people to understand. I'm sure it's never occurred to anyone at weibo that its alert boxes being non-copyable, and disappearing even without clicking (what I think is) the okay-button, might be an issue. But it is, so what have I done that's put someone else in the place where I am, on weibo? What would I want, with only the edges of a language, to help me understand a little more, or at least feel a little less lost?

What I end up feeling, mostly, is a kind of quiet depression, and sometimes despair. There's an entire world, there, and I can't be part of it. I don't mean that in the sense that I should be entitled (via privilege) to be part of it, or that it should adapt itself to my admittedly-very-low skills. I mean in the sense that I should be able, of my own accord, to cross that chasm: that it's something missing in me. Something I may never have, and I guess it's my belief in communication that makes me feel the lack so strongly.

And as a corollary: we (in the ux world) often have trouble convincing savvy users (designers, developers) that yes, the average user won't see the site as the problem. The user is going to see themselves as the problem; they're going to quit not because the buttons are backwards or the navigation's nonsensical, but with the impression that the user is just too stupid to get it. I rarely have that feeling, myself, on the English-language part of the web. But I feel that every single time I try to search for something on weibo. I feel stupid, and inadequate, and confused, and helpless. I feel like I should just give up, that I'm no good at this, and even that I never will be.

Then I start thinking of what might make me feel less like that, and how I'd change designs I've done, to be more inclusive of lesser language skills, or cognitive abilities, and all the rest of the passel that falls under the header of accessibility. Ultimately, I just don't want to think (though I'm certain I have, even if unwittingly) I've ever made someone else feel the way I feel, trying to figure out why I can't seem to download a damn thing off my weibo vdisk. To think I have, is mortifying.

Then I catch another episode of a K-drama, or watch a Thai movie, or read a translation of a Russian novel, and I think: there's so much out there in the world, being expressed in ways and complexities that I will only ever be able to understand through an intermediary. It's a part of the world I can only be told, and never truly be shown. And in a way, knowing there's so much unknown isn't depressing, in the end. It's humbling, but a little awe-inspiring, too. What marvelous creatures we humans are, to have hundreds upon hundreds of different ways to say good morning, to say thank you, to say I love you. The universality of human emotion rendered utterly separate by our faculty for language, but still universal even if we don't understand the words.

Ending here, because this is where I lose my own language and can't figure out how to express it well enough to bother anyone with more.

Date: 1 Feb 2012 07:10 pm (UTC)
phoebe_zeitgeist: (Default)
From: [personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist
This is somewhat tangential, but you touch on something that I know is central to why I love (some) media in language I don't understand, and that (for me, more importantly) comes from cultures that are foreign to me.

You would think that with the number of people writing in English, and making English-language media, the variety and richness of what's produced would be enough for anyone. And yet I find a sameness to it, a kind of familiarity to my own culture's assumptions and ways of looking at the world. Those assumptions are never stated, of course, but they're always there, implicit in any kind of text. It gets old, especially since all of us who're natives of this group of cultures already are familiar with that set of assumptions and ideas. We've been seeing them since earliest childhood, after all: same old, same old.

Go to the work of another culture, and suddenly those implicit assumptions aren't there. You can read them in -- to some extent you probably will, because you can't see things entirely outside of your own frameworks for understanding -- but what you see will be profoundly different from what you'd see in the work of your own culture even if you are reading it all wrong from the perspective of the originating culture. And that's a glorious feeling, on the level of the old sf sense of wonder. It has something of that same sense of fundamental rightness, too, because it's a reminder of the bigness and strangeness of the world, how much there is to it that's beyond our understanding. I realize that this is an attitude that risks leading to issues of orientalism and cultural appropriation: it's certainly the case that I find myself valuing works of another culture for their meaning to me as an outsider at least as much as I value them for whatever their creator might have hoped and intended them to do (especially given that I know damned well I'm never going to be able to understand them from the inside). But the value of that sense of newness, and of the magnificence of the world outside of my little corner of it, is such that I find myself unwilling to give it up no matter how much of a cultural imperialist that might make me.

Date: 1 Feb 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
nemonclature: Daria looking unamused (Default)
From: [personal profile] nemonclature
I know what you mean about feeling smaller: "these people are talking, and there's a whole way of writing, of conjugating verbs, of expressing the self, and I understand none of it."

I get that feeling, especially when I'm thinking about literature -- all those books, and translations will never quite capture the original.

Date: 2 Feb 2012 12:47 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] dsgood
My paternal grandfather once mentioned that his first job in the US had been writing letters for a furniture factory. I asked him if he hadn't had trouble with spelling.

No, he explained. One year, his Hebrew school had had a teacher who was also literate in English; so he had a year's education in written Polish. Since Polish and English used the same alphabet, and were therefore closely related, if you could spell one you could spell the other.

As you probably know, English and Polish have somewhat different spelling conventions.

Date: 2 Feb 2012 01:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] chocolatefae.livejournal.com
Hello! Just curious...I read previously a few times about your career and how it has to do with interface design and analysis...

What officially do you do? I think that I am looking at a career that may follow yours in the future.

Date: 4 Feb 2012 05:33 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] chocolatefae.livejournal.com
Aww yeah! Looking forward to it! :)

Date: 2 Feb 2012 05:49 am (UTC)
soukup: Kodama from Mononoke-hime (Default)
From: [personal profile] soukup
The fact that there are so many languages out there that I don't speak yet actually makes me really happy and excited when I think about it. I love knowing for absolutely certain that as long as I live I will never, ever be bored.

Date: 2 Feb 2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
dragonhand: (romans go home)
From: [personal profile] dragonhand
I often feel overwhelmed with languages and cultures I don't yet understand, and will never fully understand. If I had one crazy wish, I'd wish I could understand all languages. Being able to read or listen to anything and understand it would be so amazing. But it'll never happen, and I feel a deep sense of loss about that.

Date: 3 Feb 2012 12:08 pm (UTC)
wingblossom: (hearts)
From: [personal profile] wingblossom
This post perfectly describes something I've often thought, but failed to articulate. Thanks for writing it. &heart;