Interview with

Xiang Sicong

Name: 向思聪 (Xiàng Sī Cōng)
Nationality or Ethnicity: Chinese
Where do you live: Beijing
Languages: Chinese Mandarin, Spanish, English, Italian, French, Portuguese, Norwegian Bokmål, Japanese

1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?

A shorter version of how I acquired my languages would be: Chinese Mandarin at home, English at school, Spanish at school, and the rest are results of adventurous self-directed studies. But for anyone who is interested in more details, here is a (much) longer version:

Essentially, I would say the ultimate reason why I study languagesboils down to me wanting to cover the fact that I do not know my regional dialect, which unfortunately I am still struggling with. Well, jokes aside.

I come from southern China. Small town, not much diversity, humble family, hard-working parents, who do not speak any more English beyond “How are you?”. Chinese Mandarin was my only and default language (I wish I had learned my dialect though). Like most of my peer, the first foreign language that I had contact with was English, as a school subject of course, at the age of six. Although in retrospective I now realize that I have been getting higher grades than my classmates in English, it was never clear to me back then that I might be enjoying studying it. Things came to a sudden turn at the age of fourteen when one day I stumbled on a TV program where they talked a little bit about world languages, the peoples who speak them, cultural features, geographical distribution, etc. That program ignited something vague inside me and now I know this was exactly when I got hooked.

As the wonder of languages kept on tickling me throughout high school, when I went to college I decided to major in Spanish. And hereafter things happened rather naturally as my curiosity completely took the reins. At sophomore year, I had time to spare. A Spanish professor of mine knew Italian (as do some of my ex-es back then), so I was primed with it, and it sounded similar to what I studied every day, why not try to learn some Italian? I mean, I have people to talk to. Going for Italian was one of the best choices I have made, as later I established incredible friendships with amazing Italian friends, who also helped me tremendously with my Italian. Senior year was when I thought French seemed challenging and useful and decided to dive into it (with some hesitation before jumping though). A few years later Portuguese came because I enjoyed taking short-cuts to peek into sister languages, and also Romance languages were the most accessible ones for me, so I having been just poking around in the same family. In 2019, I started with Norwegian. At that time Skam was still trending and Norwegian still is a pretty unconventional language to study in China which happened to break into my thoughts. Hmmm… the temptation was hard to resist. As for Japanese, it is my newest language. I am not a super anime fan but I do watch Japanese anime growing up. Being native in Chinese, I had the audacity to see Japanese as a low-hanging apple for me, given my long-term exposure to the language and its incredible similarity/difference with my mother tongue. Besides, having studied several European languages, now I am also in a stage where I want to turn back and explore other Asian languages, especially those spoken historically around Chinese.

2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?

Finnish and Mongolian. I am on an over-five-hundred-day’s streak on Duolingo Finnish course! But my Finnish study also finishes there. And I started with Mongolian less than a month ago. Now I can barely spell out words. Although I am deeply mesmerized by the phonetics of these two, it is likely that I keep on procrastinating. I think language-learnings are like relationships. It takes some courage and careful premeditation to start a serious one.

3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?

The list is long and keeps updating itself over time. But for now, the most eminent ones that I want to dip toe in are Kazakh, Tagalog, Thai, Swahili, Hebrew, Greek, Kalaallisut.

4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?

The NEXT language is always the sexiest. For example, now the distinctive postalveolar lateral fricative Л in Mongolian always gives me goosebumps. I am sure I will have similar experience with my future languages.

5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?

I feel some sort of extremely private and personal connections with the languages that I have studied. Mainly related to the way how they became part of me. I believe there are no identical trajectories in language-learning, whether among learners or target languages. For example, in order to study language A, one watched tons of videos of a certain Youtuber that in the end it feels like you know that person; whereas for language B, one might find a welcoming community of fellow learners that you interact with regularly. The languages that a person has studied and speaks are not just numbers in exhibition, but rather portals to some extraordinarily intimate secrets. And I think that is beautiful.

6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in 100 years, do you think this is really true?

I do not think it is going to happen in such a drastic manner. However, the tendency in itself is undeniable, and more unstoppable if we let it be. However, thanks to internet, language-learning has never been so accessible, and I have witnessed efforts to promote under-studied languages and preserve indigenous ones during global polyglot events. I think this generates positive impact, whose magnitude is worthwhile studying.

7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?

To use another analogy here, I think making up one’s mind to study a certain language should be treated in the same way as in getting yourself a new tattoo. It is never recommended to get it without much careful thinking. I believe it is important to prioritize with languages as well. If I have an idea (be it about tattoo or languages), I usually like to write it down and let that idea grow for a while before re-examining it and making a decision that I would mostly likely not regret. Personally, studying a language on and off makes me feel defeated, so if I were to start one, I would want to do it consistently.