Interview with

Yeming Chen

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?

French.

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.

The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2020

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