A Linguistic Joke: One Chinese Language Student's Journey

May 12, 2011

You may have heard this joke attributed to language-learning enthusiast Barry Farber: “What do you call a person who speaks two languages?” “Bilingual.” “What do you call a person who speaks three languages?” “Trilingual." “What do you call a person who speaks four languages?” “Quadrilingual.” “What do you call a person who speaks only one language?” “An American.” After I heard this for the first time, I didn’t think of it as so much of a “joke,” but as an insult buried under the facade of humor. I cringed a little because I, as an American who at the time I first heard this only spoke one language fluently, am at the butt of the joke. And while I think it’s healthy to laugh at oneself, this is one joke where the truth hurt a bit for me. Why did it hurt? I’ve had an interest, maybe closer to a fascination, with foreign languages going back to when I first started learning a second language – kindergarten. I went to a Hebrew Day School through third grade where I spent nearly half the day learning Hebrew. My mom told me that when I transferred to public school in fourth grade, I met the principal of my new school and asked, “What foreign languages do you teach?” The answer, unsurprisingly, was zero. I finally got to start taking a foreign language in 7th grade, and chose French. I loved learning French, enough that a friend convinced me to go to Lac Du Bois, a French language camp in Bemidji, Minnesota. However, without having any more French classes to take after 11th grade, my passion for French faded. In the summer before starting college, I was perusing the Brandeis course catalog. I saw I could easily continue both French and Hebrew. But a different language caught my eye. I still can’t say exactly what was going through my head at that time when I decided on Chinese, but I knew I wanted something new and challenging. Within the first few weeks of the semester, I knew I made the right choice. My professor not only made learning Chinese fun, but made it accessible and (almost) easy. I still remember first looking at the characters in the textbook, and thinking, “Nope, no way this is going to happen.” But it happened. I figured I would take Chinese until the time it became too difficult or not fun. Luckily, that time never came. However, when people asked me if I spoke Chinese, I would only answer a “little,” since even the basics of the language could still be a challenge after two years of study. After five semesters of Chinese, I finally had the opportunity to immerse myself in a 100% Chinese language environment free of the English pollution that stunts language learning. Studying in Beijing on a language intensive program, I could feel my language abilities growing in me nearly every day and returned to Brandeis much more confident in myself and my Chinese. Since coming back to the States, I can not only answer that question "Do you speak Chinese?” with an affirmative yes, but don’t feel the guilt any more from the Barry Farber joke. Jamie Fleishman is a student at Brandeis University and interns at Cheng & Tsui Company in Boston, Massachusetts.