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The Great Language Game
Language is never part of my academic interests. As a child, I used to recite Classical Chinese poems and passages, not because I found them enriching, entertaining, or enchanting, but because I wanted something. Tens of nights climbing the stairs with my father (his unique understanding of the word "exercise") and reading and memorizing a long text earned me a bicycle so that every day after kindergarten I could rush it around the university campus with my friends. Into the primary school, I fell for computer games, not surprisingly, but only received a ration of 30 minutes a day. When my every nerve itched for more, a short poem would save me: reciting it would earn me 5 minutes, and many "Just one more moment," "Let me finish this one." I pretty much depleted all the easy ones in the book in this way. These ancient Chinese literature were but bargaining chips between me and my parents.
As a very lazy person, I did not like to read, either, and I presume I was not good at it anyway. Why read a book when you can sit back and watch TV? I was especially clumsy when it came to the reading comprehension questions on the Chinese exams (What a blessing that CollegeBoard prefers Multiple Choice over Short Answers!). My thoughts seldom translate correctly into words in the blanks, and when they do, by scientific methods I could assert that it is a Law that I would always miss some subtle points that the answer says. Anyhow, what is the slightest logical connection between "the curtain is blue" and "the author is creating a depressing mood"? When I read literature, confusion about the author’s use of symbols, motifs, implications comes flooding at me, and it seems that the ability to understand them is a mysterious superpower that I fail to grasp and is never meant for one as unintelligent as me. In primary school, these frustrations combined with my rebellious nature formed in me the peculiar idea that all such literature is a joke and is at its best, interesting stories, and at its worst, nothing. My only academic interest was mathematics at that time, and mathematics is simply too different from all those crap in that it is accurate, solid and infallible. All in all, I detested and looked down upon probably all components of the course of Chinese, be it ancient poems, modern literature, and, of course, compositions, at which I am also very unskillful.
This essay would probably be boring to death if the first sentence of it is true, so I confess now that I lied. The change happened when I rose to middle school. It offers optional foreign language courses that are decided when enrolled, and I, foolishly ditching away my chance to learn another language in a class for the next three years, chose the most dull and insipid one — English. Others’ achievement in areas that do not intrigue me never impact me personally, yet I longed to become one of them when I saw many friends then well versed in German or Japanese. The only explanation for this anomaly was that I too became interested in multilingualism. Clearly, someone, or something, time maybe, broached open my interests for, as I realized later, almost everything, but how this happened remains a mystery.
Thus began my quest for multilingualism. It was mostly not a persistent and object-oriented cause, due to my slothfulness, but a blithe journey in fits and starts. Once on a French Airline,
"What would you like for drink?" asked the flight attendant.
I deliberated, my guidelines being that I want to drink it and I want to practice my French. Cola or Spirits? No, the same in English and French. Coffee? Not sure what that word is. Apple juice? Maybe not, "pomme" sounds like "porn" and might cause confusions and embarrassments. "Orange ju," uttered me finally.
"Excuse me?" perplexed, she answered.
"Orange ju," I repeated, also perplexed.
"I am sorry, what?" she asked again, perplexed.
"Orange juice, please." giving up, I finally said it in English.
"Oh, here you go."
"Merci. And how do I say 'orange juice' in French?"
"Jus d’orange." she pronounced in flawless French that took me quite a second to understand.
Apparently, insufficient practice makes imperfect. Indeed, three and four years already since I picked up this interest, I merely had several bites of German, French and Latin, and some sips of Swedish and Italian. My heedless approach to learning languages left in me shadows and impressions and much fewer substances. Many vocabulary I have forgotten and many conjugation rules I have never recited, but I instinctively know the word "cache" is of French origin and much more comfortable am I with sentences strangely ordered and adjectives being put after nouns. I still laugh at the Swedish word of "read" being "laser" — how their books suffer! I feel proud when I occasionally come across some German or French and found that I could understand it. Being able to recognize the articles, prepositions and some basic words already help tremendously to get around French streets and buildings. These are remnants of these broken languages I learned that continue to affect me. Although I still lament sometimes that I learnt them not well enough, I am not all that unsatisfied. I have to some extent achieved my intention at the very beginning — one not for communication but one for fun and amusement.
I see these languages as not so much tools but toys. I rejoiced in detecting patterns and similarities within and across these languages, in experiencing different grammar structures, in laughing at or even inventing jokes only bilinguals get, etc. I surely am willing to learn more of these languages and am still on that blithe journey, but the joys that they bring me seem not so indispensable and thus suffice not to motivate slothful one like me, unfortunately. However, I genuinely started to appreciate multilingualism that I, who even does not care about his mother tongue, used to hold in contempt: I did not mean some language is superior than other; I meant that it seemed unwise to waste time studying a second or even third language. Perhaps treating multilingualism as a game is even a higher appreciation than treating it as a tool for communication, though the latter might well be as intricate or more intricate, depending on where we draw the lines; in the same way that pure mathematics gives more insights into the internal beauty of this subject than does applied mathematics, that physics is more "beautiful" than engineering. Their very nature of uselessness might be what endows them a Romantic or Idealistic sentiment; after all, if there is absolutely no purpose for doing something people do, people tend to invent some purpose for it and call it curiosity, the quest to the beauty of nature, purification of one’s soul, or whatever they do. But it is, anyway, what people believe and feel that MATTERS. "It was my heart that counseled me to do it, and my heart cannot err," put one German Romantic. Indeed, as long as one feels compelled to pursue a passion, whether useful or useless, it is a fine reason to do so. Is this not a most trivial meaning of life? These sentiments being true for math and natural sciences, they are also true in the vast reign of language. Multilingualism is then for me but a game to play, and the way I play it already make me enjoy it. That is enough.
Turns out that this game of multilingualism is merely a part of a much larger game. Without any choice, English became my language of choice for academic reading and writing when I entered an international high school. As a ton of reading and writing assignments came flooding at me since the very beginning of school, I really write much more frequently now in English than I did in Chinese ever, ironically. I also learn and recite many new words, which I never did in my native language. Resulting from such practice or English being inherently easier than Chinese to master is a substantial improvement of my English writing. Especially now in Year 11, when I familiarize myself with many SAT words and read many beautiful and philosophical proses from AP Language, I feel I write better in English now than I ever did in Chinese. It is a peculiar experience indeed: when I write in English, I often hear in my head not only my own voices but also those of many writers that I read; but when I used to write in Chinese, I usually hear my fewer voices and sometimes only mine. These voices help me decide the way to craft the sentences and the structures. I think the first time when I am truly satisfied with the language of my writing was in the AP Language class, and all my previous writings, be they in English or Chinese, I consider their language to be dull and lack of vibrance — such vibrance is difficult to articulate, but I think I can feel it and others would feel similarly as me. It was the first time that I am able to take just the right word off the tip of my tongue and onto the paper, to build some sort of rhythm within a paragraph with different sentences, or in general, to write as I feel it in my mind. The thrill I felt when I wrote those sentences and paragraphs — is there any essential difference from what I get from solving a maths puzzle, from beating an opponent in a badminton match, from slaughtering the enemies in a video game? I would not think so: it is merely the sense of accomplishment. These are all games in which we play against others or ourselves, but ultimately ourselves. I dare not ascertain the rewards of such games, but I say they mostly are some sort of appreciation from oneself or others. When one constructs a beautiful expression that he is satisfied with, he wins over himself in this game, and, if his disposition welcomes compliments, he wins more when others also appreciate his expression. There are thousands of ways of uttering the same idea, and a writer, when taking his writings seriously, mostly does not choose the dullest way. Why? Because he tries to win over himself in this game of expressions, that is, to choose the one that he thinks the best. Language is the container of information and ideas, and this container itself without the contents has value in it: a gold container is often more desirable and appealing than a plastic one, for example. This container, that is, the expressions themselves, offers a game where people use their creativity to play. Many passages and articles are beautiful and well-known, merely because they are literally beautiful. This phenomenon, for me, is especially apparent in Chinese. In fact, I did begin to appreciate Classical Chinese texts in middle school, mostly for their elaborate language. Takes poems for examples. Those poets have hundreds of ways to lament on their relegations in government and their unredeemed ambition to serve their country; to express their concerns for their old friends and their families; and to grieve for the decline of their empires. These things recur again and again in those poems, and each poem has a different way of uttering them. But they all stood the test of time, because their language is so rich: the subtle metaphors and allusions, the elaborate imagery, the structural and verbal parallelism, the rhymes, and so many more all shine with dazzling creativity, and we people appreciate and enjoy their delicate language. "Tengwang Ge Xu," for example, is but an improvised narrative piece upon a banquet by Wang Bo, but is also one of the most famous and fine Pianwen(parallel prose) that survives to today. Written entirely in parallel structures, it rhymes very well and creates beautiful imagery that immediately draws one in: one of the most renowned sentence is "The dawn flies together with the ducks, and the autumn rivers blend with the pellucid sky." It sounds much better in Chinese, but even translated, the metaphor he uses sparks with imagination. Imagine a passage full of these sentences! I did not use to appreciate such beauty, but I do now, and such a transition shows me what is truly remarkable in these poems that passed from generation to generation — merely the beauty of language, not the stories that they tell, nor the philosophies that they reveal. The language itself, not the idea that it contains, is a game that many writers play by their intelligence, a game that I was not really able to play but am able now to some extent. One may say that language is but the superficial of writings, but this is already a window wide enough for us to peek into the immense wisdom of human. Who is to say that how one say something is less important than what he actually says? When we craft some delicate expressions that we are satisfied with, we in a way add to that total wisdom and gain satisfaction in return. At least this is true for me. That is enough.
But in a larger sense, even with what is beneath the language that we may call the substantial, language might still be a sort of game. Arguments are everywhere in our life — down to what is for lunch and up to what is to launch (missiles, satellites, etc.; I won once again in the language game!). Argumentative writing is no less like a game. When writing the synthesis essay and argumentative essay for AP Language, a strongest feeling of mine is that I have no concrete ground to stand on. What is correct and what is erroneous, in the objective sense, are vague and equivocal. Developing an argument in these situations is like trying to climb stairs made with swamp — each time you try to go up, your shoes get stuck into the swamp a little. Nights of struggling before the computer, holding my head, writing all sorts of thoughts and drawing little diagrams on the scratch paper, I defensed and refuted my arguments to and fro and ensured my logic flows reasonably. This did not help me to create a perfect argument, that being nearly impossible for a topic that is complex enough to write on, but a rather self-consistent one. I could only try to avoid what would contradict myself, but, for the lack of concrete ground, it is unlikely that all the whirlpools lurking in the logic stream that could destroy my argument be spotted. Sometimes an argument that seems true in the past can be no more wrong in the present. That is often because a change occurred during this period and revealed an unnoticed flaw in that argument. Indeed, many arguments have foundations on a chain of unverifiable chains that make the arguments themselves unverifiable — there is no truth over many things that we argue about. Therefore, the purpose of many arguments is not truth, but trust. We construct arguments to convince others. This endows arguments also a flavor of game. I just need to make my logic seem perfect and difficult to attack, and this takes, again, intelligence and creativity. The arguments created in such fashions are both robust and vulnerable. But it does not matter, because often the only point is to convince. It is merely a game in which you try to outwit someone else…
I have always loved jokes and loved inventing them even more, but recently I became more prolific in making jokes based on language, for some reason. For example, the acronym TOEFL can be expanded into Test of English for Losers. Or, once in a Chemistry class we learned that lighter gases travel faster. I immediately made some associations with "light travels fast." Indeed, there is absolutely no connection between these two statements, yet these coincidence make one cannot help but chuckle. Sometimes, I also invent jokes only bilinguals understand. As an example, the word "Greenhouse", when separated into "green" and "house," can be translated respectively into “?”(cyan) and “?”(building), which combine to mean brothel in Chinese. There is infinite fun in finding these coincidences in language. To borrow Newton’s words, I am just a boy playing on the seashore of language, and divert myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary. Inventing such jokes is most obviously a game of language, and is the most fun for me.
Now after all these changes in me and reflecting back, I see that the reading comprehension that I used to hate is just another game of language. We are expected to understand similarly as the question writer does, despite that the same piece of literature might have thousands of different interpretations. Is it not just like the rules within a game? Some people learn to play that game well and some people do not. And literature itself is a game also, because of the myriad of interpretations. The writers play their games as they write them, and we play our games as we interpret them. We may not feel exactly as the writers want to convey us, but it does not matter that much. When we read it, it is our game to play. It is of trifling importance whether we get fun, excitement, sorrow, enlightenment, knowledge, or whatever. The most important is that we enjoy this game.
All in all, all these territories of language come together to form the Great Language Game. From inventing jokes to reading literature, from crafting expressions and arguments to enjoying the exquisite language of proses and poems, all these parts of language are but a game for me now. I used to hold contempt for this reign of language and its value, but now one of the important values for me is that it offers a playground for me and it is a way of exercising my creativity and imagination, which brings me much fun. This fun I get, it is all that matters. If now you also feel language is kind of like a game, then congratulations — for me: I won some game of arguments once again.