Name: Yeming Chen
Nationality or Ethnicity: Chinese
Where do you live?: Rome
Languages: Chinese (Mandarin), English, German, French, Italian, Latin, Classical Greek
1.What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I would characterise my journey of learning languages as a yearning for culture and education. I was born in an average Chinese province and grew up in an otherwise obscure and average Chinese city, if the current pandemics didn’t make its name known to the world. Even as a child growing up I felt a strong lack of culture and finer things in my life. My parents are both monolingual and needless to say not many foreigners would visit my city. It may be hard for foreigners who live in democracies to imagine a life under the world’s largest dictatorship. In the Chinese society in which I grew up there was a complete disinterest, sometimes manifested in the form of disdain, in culture, opinions, and things that lie beyond the confines of our nation. Daily routines were centred around making money, merely to survive.
I was twelve when I started to take language learning seriously. As a kind of ‘formality’, mainly to conform to the general practice of our society, my parents made me attend English classes from a young age, which I had never taken seriously. But from the age of twelve I somehow simply felt the necessity and urgency to transform into action the inward yearning for culture which I had always felt before. I began to read English novels alongside with Chinese translation. It was the way I chose to learn a foreign language, and it was the only way, since materials related to ‘Western (capitalist) culture’ were scarce and encountering foreigners on the streets was impossible. However, we could still read classics, the masterpieces of English writing. In my spare hours, mainly during lunch breaks and late at night, I managed to read Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce and many other English authors, without caring much about the pronunciations of words, as I did not think that I would have the chance of going abroad. This indeed created some troubles when about five years later I was able to reside in England. People in my school had mixed opinions about a twelve-year-old student reading English books, which, in my opinion, perfectly illustrates the paradoxical condition in a dictatorship: on the one hand teachers were pleased with my linguist ability, but on the other hand they could not ignore the ‘highly suspicious influences’ that Western books exercised on me. One of the more conservative teachers, probably angered and appalled by my suggestion that students should have more freedom of thought, even told me to burn all my books. Of course I didn’t listen to him and decided to learn French instead.
When I turned fourteen the environment at school simply became more and more hostile. As a consequence, I decided to withdraw from school. Homeschooling may be becoming normal in some countries nowadays, but in China, at least when I went to school, it was unheard of. I would not hesitate to compare the situation of those Chinese students withdrawn from school to that of non-Christians in medieval Europe. It was a hard decision but my mother supported me. I finally had time to learn French. There was an Alliance Française in my city, but after having attended some courses there, I decided to carry on learning myself, using their well equipped library. The reason I wanted to learn French was that I discovered many English words came from French, and after reading the famous passage in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe I finally decided that French was essential for an educated person. Moreover, I wanted to read my favourite author, Proust, in his language. I first started to read Proust when I was thirteen, as a challenge, since he has the reputation of writing the most complicated sentences. His long sentences fascinated me. In Chinese long sentences are rare and even abnormal, as a consequence we can never express so many complex and precise thoughts in one sentence. While studying about the history of French I came across the name of Latin, a language which was simply unheard of in China. But before I could have time to learn it, I had to deal with other vicissitudes of life.
It wasn’t until I was fifteen when I finally had the time to learn Latin. I failed some exams in China and the only way to continue my education was to go abroad. I went to Austria, since I had always wanted to go to Europe. I simply could not describe my joy at being surrounded by books in different languages. Most of my time in Vienna was spent by reading and loitering around the city. I would carry Arthur Schniztler’s Jugend in Wien and go around different corners in the old city. German literature has opened a window for me not only for Germany and Austria, but also for countries like Czechia and Hungary. I travelled to Prague with Kafka and Rilke, to South Bohemia with Stifter, exploring the German roots behind the Slavic names. In Austria I also began to learn Latin and Greek in school. But I would say I was so obsessed with German literature that I didn’t enjoy the ancient languages very much at the beginning. Like most lovers of German literature, I nurtured a great veneration for Goethe and the place where he had spent most of his life, Weimar. When I was sixteen, I finally visited the small city and Goethe’s house. I left Weimar with a determination to study classics, because I was impressed by Goethe’s classical culture. If the great German writer has such a brilliant classical education, so must I.
For some reasons the last years of my secondary school were spent in England. I didn’t start any new language in the country, but mainly focused on improving my Latin and Greek. I remember I would walk around the English countryside with a Virgil or Euripides. Indeed I took great pleasure in reading Virgil’s descriptions of the Italian landscape in the Bucolics while walking in the woody landscape of West Country. I also took an interest in British Latin writers and brought Buchanan’s Rerum Scotiarum Historia with me when travelling in Scotland, St Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica when visiting different holy sites in North England. Unfortunately many great British Latin writers are nowadays rarely read.
When I was eighteen I visited Italy for the first time. Apart from being impressed by the ancient sites, I was ashamed of the fact that I could barely speak Italian and thus not able to enjoy the full hospitality of the Italian people. Back to England, I started learning Italian seriously. I started with Dante and Petrarch, as they are the most known, but later discovered that their languages differed considerably from the modern Italian in use. Subsequently I switched to Fogazzaro’s novels. Obviously with Latin I already knew a substantial amount of vocabulary, and most of the time I read quite smoothly. But while in England my focus was still mainly on Latin and Greek. When I started university, my language skills were relatively better than many of my peers. By that time I was nineteen and had not returned to China for four years. Though I didn’t like the country in its present state, I was convinced that we were a great nation, only temporarily controlled by a ruthless government. I began to search for our greatness, in Classical Chinese. Luckily at my university there was a well equipped Chinese library, with a complete collection of the ancient classics. I picked up Classical Chinese by simply reading very carefully, looking up every character that I am not sure about. It was maybe due to the fact that I had already learned two classical languages. It is the same with every classical language, the key is to read word by word, with extreme care and patience. It is quite a different process than reading modern languages, where information can be more easily gathered and processed. With the reading of Chinese classics I finally began to see how different we were as a people, and how many great ideas in Mencius and other philosophers were obscured or distorted by the current Chinese government.
For some family reasons I transferred to Italy, where I will be finishing my university in the next few months. Right now I would say I am still in the phase of exploring Italian literature and geography, but sadly my activities have been interrupted for the past few months. Though I can now use standard Italian, I am not familiar with the dialects, and even as a foreigner I think I need to be acquainted with at least some of the major Italian dialects. In the future my plan is to explore the Slavic world, starting with Russian and then maybe moving on to the Slavic languages in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially Czech, for a better understanding of the Donaumonarchie from all perspectives.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Modern Greek and French.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I would like to restart Pali and Sanskrit. I have started them in the past but didn’t carry on. Also I would like to explore more Slavic languages, especially the Slavic languages spoken in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I am able to read the majority of world classics in their original languages
6. 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?
No. Some ancient languages, such as Latin, Greek, Pali, Sanskrit, Classical Hebrew, because of their great contributions to humanity, are not forgotten even when nowadays they don’t have any native speaker anymore. Even the ‘less great’ dead languages such as Provençal, Old High German or Old English, which are not on the same scale as the ‘classical languages’ mentioned, are not completely forgotten. Languages, as long as they have left something valuable behind, either for the entire humanity or just for one single nation, will never disappear.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Polyglottism has always been a sign of true education, in almost every nation that values it. The great humanists in Italy used to be polyglots and valued highly the merits of both classical and modern languages (mainly Tuscan). Milton was also a polyglot and composed poems in Latin, Greek, and Tuscan. In China, a society traditionally characterised by its seclusion and monolingualism, the literati have always valued the ability to read Sanskrit texts. Studying multiple languages is a hard task, but manageable. By knowing multiple languages, you will get close ties to different nations and peoples, the ability to think differently, and a better understanding of the world.