Name: Cingzi-Kiyoshi Chau
Nationality or Ethnicity: USA, of Chinese-Japanese origin
Where do you live? USA
Languages: English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Karen, Karenni
What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I was born in the U.S. My father is from Hong Kong and my mother is from Japan. My wife is from the mainland China. I grew up in semi-English-speaking environment. My father speaks five languages, and I unknowingly wanted to know more languages than what he knew. I got to know S’gaw Karen and Karenni people and their culture through volunteering program to support refugees. I learned their languages and culture to understand their background more. When I found similarities between Karen and Chinese language, I did not feel much obstacle to learn Karen. Sadly, I had to leave their community when I began studying at my university. During college, I lived in Hong Kong over a summer for four months to experience the culture. I am now back in the U.S. to continue my education.
Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I wish to invest more time practicing Karen and Karenni, because I am having a hard time finding friends around me who speak these two languages. The languages are used in the rural area of Thailand, so not much research has been done. Learning resources are limited. Currently, I am hoping to save enough money to travel to Thailand, where the language is spoken.
What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I would like to learn Spanish, as I have many friends around me from Latin America. Other good candidates are Hakka and Wenzhounese. Hakka is a language spoken by my Chinese grandmother, and is said to have some connections with Japanese, my mother tongue. My wife speaks Wenzhounese.
So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I vote for Spanish although I do not speak it.
What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Through learning languages, I experienced the pleasure of establishing friendships in various countries and cultures. Learning languages does not merely mean increasing our capability to communicate with each other. Rather, it means establishing an unforgettable experiences and long-lasting friendships. When I was volunteering for refugees, I worked for an elderly woman. She looked gloomy at first because she was having a hard time adapting into the new American culture. So... I asked her to teach me her language instead of having me teach her English. She accepted it. I learned that the grammar was quite similar to Mandarin, so I embraced the language pretty quickly. As she noticed how quick I picked up the language, she wept and told me that no other young man cherished her culture. Her attitude changed. She started preparing me food often, and even asked me to teach her English. Much to my surprise, other elderly refugees heard this news, and they approached me to learn their language from them. Karen languages have wide dialect differences by regions, so every Karen language spoken by different individuals varied from one to another. Learning just from the elderly was difficult, but more than the knowledge I had acquired, the greatest value I gained is ‘love.’I encourage everyone to learn languages not because to show off their language skills, but to experience this ‘love.’
Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?
Unfortunately, I believe this is true. The multilingual culture is usually unfavored by governments in general, hence historically, languages of minorities tend to diminish. Nevertheless, I wish I could continue to share the joy and pleasure of language learning through this HYPIA.
What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
I do not believe learning a language just comes from attending a class or reading thousands of pages of grammar and vocabulary books. Eating and drinking their food, knitting cultural dresses, and singing and dancing are all a part of learning the language. I believe that understanding does NOT all come from learning the language itself. It is learning about the people, not about the language. As I continued this practice, I learned to be more understanding of another person’s need, and to be a better listener. I believe you can all experience this as you learn new languages.