Interesting Times: On Learning Chinese

This text is a supplement to Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige, by Chas W. Freeman, Jr., published by Just World Books in January 2013. Other texts offered in this series can be accessed here.

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Chas Freeman writes:

In May 2009– many years after I had studied ancient and modern European languages, Tamil, Chinese (Mandarin and Taiwanese), Thai, and Arabic– I was honored by a request to help present an award for excellence in language learning to students at the United States Military Academy. These are the remarks I delivered that day.

On Learning Chinese and Other Foreign Languages

Remarks delivered at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, May 22, 2009.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Corps of Cadets:

The Friendship Award was created seventeen years ago by Major General Bernard Loeffke in memory of Sgt. Larry Morford, a young NCO who saved General Loeffke’s life. Sgt. Morford was killed in an ambush fifteen days before he was due to come home from Vietnam. To those who knew him, he exemplified the humane spirit of the honorable warrior.

Both while on active duty and since his retirement, General Loeffke—who speaks Chinese, Russian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish and is not bad at English either—has made generous contributions to the betterment of United States relations with China and Russia. I am proud to have served with him and to count him my friend. Two of the awards Burn Loeffke created are now presented annually to the cadets who write the best essays in Chinese and Russian on how to improve our relations with these two great countries.   I am very much honored to have been asked to present these Friendship Awards today and pleased that First Secretary Shi Lei of the Chinese embassy has been able to join us for the occasion.

It has been said that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” I don’t know where the Navy is on this, but I think it’s cool that we have an army that recognizes the importance of learning other armies’ languages.   It isn’t easy to learn foreign languages. You have to be prepared to laugh when you make a fool of yourself, as you inevitably do.   So, in addition to training you to communicate and to have a good memory, language learning helps you develop a sense of humor.   As Mark Twain once observed, having a sense of humor is better than having no sense at all.

I made a point of learning the language of every country in which I served.   Doing so, I thought, was essential both to situational awareness and to the correct understanding of my hosts. But it had its occasional frustrations.

In November 1984, for example, four days after I was transferred from Beijing to Bangkok, I was invited by the Thai chief of intelligence to dine with then–CIA Director Bill Casey, who was visiting Bangkok. There were four of us on either side of the dinner table. Mr. Casey was a devotee of the American political philosopher James Boren, who ran for president on the slogan:“When in charge, ponder. When in trouble, delegate. When in doubt, mumble.”

However he may have scored on pondering and delegating, Casey was really, really good at mumbling. He was, in fact, incomprehensibly boring in any language. Soon after we sat down, our Thai hosts despaired of conversing with him and began to carry on a lively discussion in their own language.

In Beijing I had been able to understand everything going on around me. I was reminded that evening that, in Thailand, I wouldn’t be able to detect a scam even if it was put together right in front of me. So the next morning I engaged a Thai tutor. For a year, I got up every morning before dawn—at the hour at which the world’s Muslims rise for morning prayer, the hour before daybreak that the Anglo-Saxons, who had a gift for description, called “sparrowfart”—and I studied Thai.

I got to the point where I could tell shaggy dog stories in the language. At that moment, Mr. Casey returned to Bangkok. Same guests, same sequence at dinner—but this time I could understand what our Thai hosts were saying. The Thai foreign minister, national security adviser, intelligence chief, and drug czar were talking about booze, boxing, women, and golf, and they were telling each other dirty jokes.   So it turned out that I had missed hundreds of hours of sleep in order to be able to tune in on bar blather. Still, some of the jokes were pretty good and at least I knew those guys weren’t plotting to do anything I wouldn’t do.

To know another man’s language is to know something of his soul—rather more of it, I suspect, than simply looking into his eyes.   Language is, after all, the mode in which we reason.   It is much more than our means of communication; it is the means by which we explain what we experience, and it is the vehicle for our culture. It is how we understand space and time. As George Steiner remarked, “Each and every tongue is a distinct window into the world. Looking through it, the native speaker enters an emotional and spiritual space, a framework of memory, a promontory on tomorrow which no other window in the great house of Babel quite matches. Thus every language mirrors and generates a possible world, an alternative reality.”

Language is a reflection of personality and culture and human interaction with events. A foreign tongue must be savored with all the senses.   It is useful, but not enough, to be able to read it. Language is more than words and syntax. The body often speaks before the mouth, and even when the mouth is silent. Body language, too, differs across cultures and must be learned.

Learning a language is a path to the avoidance of the kinds of misunderstandings and miscalculations that give rise to conflict. It is essential to understanding how the native speakers of the language think. It is the sine qua non of transnational cooperation and alliance management. It is also the best antidote to the classic sin of analysts and military commanders: the tendency to view one’s partners and competitors as the mirror image of oneself, projecting onto them one’s own values and thought processes rather than understanding their perspectives and proclivities in their own terms, for what they are. In peacetime such false expectations are a source of tension; in wartime they can lead to surprise and defeat.

But those of you who have been studying languages know all this. You are way ahead of previous generations of Americans. Years ago, very few people studied Russian or Chinese. Those who did so were sometimes looked at askance.

For reasons he never explained, my maternal grandfather learned Russian at Harvard before fighting Pancho Villa, then the Germans in the First World War. As that war drew to a close, the U.S. Army set him to debriefing exiles from the newly established Soviet Union. According to my grandmother, he was gifted at declining Russian nouns but not so good at declining the favors of beautiful Russian countesses and the like. I wouldn’t know.

In 1969, when I began the study of Mandarin, few people—other than about 850 million Chinese—spoke it, and it was thought a bit weird to want to study it. China was seen as poor, weak, backward, isolated, and unlikely to amount to anything. If some who studied Russian confused the glories of Russian literature with the idiocy of Soviet life, many who studied Chinese feared that, in the modern era, it would prove to be the key to an empty room. All this is to recall that it was not so long ago that we were worried about the possibility that the USSR might dominate the world and that China’s poverty and weakness might cause it to collapse.   Every day brings a surprise if you’re strategically myopic.

Whatever astonishments the future brings, I am confident that those of you who have invested time and effort in learning Chinese and Russian are highly unlikely to regret having done so, especially if you work to keep up your skills.   It’s hard work to learn either of these languages. Those of you who have excelled at this task have the sincere respect and admiration of all of us present here today.   The two recipients of the Friendship Awards I am presenting this afternoon have my particular, heartfelt congratulations.

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