It’s weird how the brain works sometimes. As I wander the city, I hear different languages all the time. I was walking toward Chinatown passing people speaking Chinese. I thought the primary language here was Cantonese, but I hear a lot of familiar words and phrases, even if I don’t know what is being said yet. Sometimes I’ll hear something that sounds Slavic, the gruff tones of Eastern Europe. I still hear Spanish from time to time, the Mission district is filled with Latinos, mostly from Mexico and El Salvador, it seems. I pass people with accents from the UK and Germany, and sometimes the rapid pattern of the Middle East. Today however, I heard a new language, one that I didn’t recognize, that I couldn’t exactly place.
Two girls were walking past talking to each other in a language that sounded fluid, but with an undertone that sounded Germanic. The accent was odd though, very Californian. I focused on the noises trying to focus on the sound. Then it clicked, and it was English. My brain stopped understanding English. That’s all, there was nothing special or unique about the language or the accent, nothing unusual about the conversation, or different from the version of English I’ve been hearing most of my life. My brain just stopped translating the noise into meaning as I walked through the font of languages downtown.
I’ve been working on my Mandarin, and learning a few words in Cantonese and Armenian with people at work. I guess it’s starting to affect how my brain understands languages. The Armenian asked me what her language sounded like to me, as in what it was similar to. I had to think about it a bit, but I went with Russian and German. The tones are kind of Russian, and some of the words sound Germanic, but neither of them are right.
When I hear a language I don’t immediately link it to another language that I know. I find it to be counterproductive, like trying to learn a language by translating it into English. Some of Spanish can be translated perfectly, but most of it is wrong, even if it can be understood. Mandarin really doesn’t work like that, with the lack of conjugation and the traditional characters having little in common with the languages I know.
That is one of the flaws with my languages. I have focused on learning without translating, so I can speak Spanish, but I have a lot of trouble translating it into English for people. I find it makes my language ability better, but it is frustrating when people assume that you can just translate on command, like it’s not a separate skill.
It’s like in martial arts. I constantly find myself “translating” Wing Chun into Tai Chi. Some of the moves are similar, but not because they really have any similarities. It’s just that the body can only move so many ways. Wing Chun focuses on using the knees and elbows to change the center of gravity and center point of the fighter.
To me, fighting against a master of Wing Chun is like fighting someone who is four feet tall, but still has the mass of an average person and knows how to nullify my size advantage. The change is slight, but powerful. The problem is, trying to use Wing Chun with Tai Chi is like trying to speak Mandarin and Spanish at the same time. With practice, I’m sure it’s possible, but it will never be as effective as the languages on their own and your accent will always suck.
The two arts each have their place, the straight line and the circle. Sometimes you use one, sometimes the other, and a Master will know both, but until then it’s just a mess. It’s hard to stop the translations though, the comparisons between arts. The movements that remind me of Kendo, the steps that bring back some of the Mantis, fragments accumulated over years of advanced practice while still working on my foundation.
That is the path of the jack of all trades, but there are always sacrifices when you try to learn everything at once. In most of life it doesn’t matter, everything can be learned as you go, but to be a master, you must have a foundation. That’s why I’m getting my degree, but I may end up speaking a dozen languages conversationally without ever mastering a new one. I may continue to learn new martial arts without ever really being good at any of them.
Part of me despairs at that thought, that I will never be the best fighter, or the best polyglot. After a moment, I realize it’s just pride coming to visit. I never had much pride, and realizing how it’s trying to control me makes it easier to control. I am a bard, the jack of all trades, the wanderer, storyteller, and student. I never planned to be the best, nor do I really care about being at the center of the competition.
I will learn what I learn. I will stumble and fall. I will walk the path I want to walk, and when I want to change paths I will do that too. I will wander the world, sometimes alone, sometimes not. The only thing I want is that when I die that I am not swallowed by fear, anger, or regret. The only thing better is to go out with joy, dragging Death in my wake as I head to whatever comes next.