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This is America. Speak Klingon.

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Phil Chu
Phil Chu
Making software since the 80s

I’ve been on a bit of a belated language-learning kick, lately, with various iOS apps (Memrise, Duolingo…), so I’m dusting off some related tumblr blogs. Here’s one from six years ago:

I read the Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly) novel Nine Dragons on my Christmas Eve flight to Oklahoma, and while I found the book moderately entertaining, I think the author had Cantonese and Mandarin confused — the translator in the story spoke both of those Chinese dialects, but learned Mandarin because his parents were from Hong Kong, and Mandarin was described as the dialect with the more sing-song tone. That’s Cantonese. I should know, my parents are from Hong Kong and speak Cantonese. (hey, was that character in the book based on me?)

You might think what’s the big deal, but then again if I referenced Italian and French interchangeably, you’d probably think that’s stupid. On the other hand, I’ve met plenty of Chinese (including waiters at restaurants that I now know to avoid) who express horror that I can’t speak with them in Mandarin — well, excuuuse me, if I returned to my “roots” I’d be speaking Cantonese, not Mandarin. And you can forget about that tip.

But I’m bluffing a little — I can’t speak Cantonese, either, except for the baby stuff I picked up before I entered grade school. And I seem to have a lack of affinity or interest in learning other languages in general — I took a few semesters of Spanish, German, French, and even Mandarin, and very little has stuck with me.

Still, every little bit helps, I think. A friend of mine who’s a language teacher asked me to cite instances where language skills have been (or would have been) professionally useful, and looking back, I’ve had colleagues in nearly every workplace who were non-native English speakers — Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Indian, French, Norwegian, just off the top of my head.

Of course, they all spoke English in the workplace (well, not of course — I did work for one Japanese-owned company), but look at it from their point of view, they’re forced to speak in a second language all the time. I’m sure any attempt to communicate with them in their native languages would have been much appreciated (and let’s be real, with office politics, you need all the networking you can get). And more and more, you can see professionals conversing with each other (tweeting, etc.) on the Internet in their own languages. They’re probably saying something interesting.

Aside from office gossip and dealing with foreign management, I’ve occasionally had foreign travel on business. I enjoyed going to the Tokyo Game Show, but probably would have enjoyed it more if I knew Japanese (I had a lot of trouble just ordering a Big Mac). You’d think Canada would be a breeze, but I discovered during an AI conference in Montreal that French-speaking skills are welcome there.

Which brings me to real work — since joining the game industry, many of my tasks have involved “localization”, customizing games to work with other languages, and the first such project I had was a French version of HyperBowl for installation in Montreal. The translations provided by our client turned out to be incorrect, which was fortunately detected and fixed by another programmer who happened to know French. This also happened on the European version of a GameCube title (this time, fixed by a French-speaking programmer from Switzerland).

More recently, I’ve been working on Asian language support for the virtual world Blue Mars, so players can have their avatars converse in Japanese, for example. You can imagine that being able to come up with complete sentences in the desired languages would really help in testing. I even have to install programs with UI’s that are entirely in another language (imagine getting a popup on screen and not knowing which button is “OK” and which is “Cancel”).

Outside of work, living here in California, the usefulness of knowing other languages is obvious. I sometimes channel-surf onto Telemundo or Univision, and I really want to know what’s going on in those spicy soap operas. Same with the Asian channels (although Time-Warner took away AZN and replaced it with a golf channel). LA has Little Tokyo, Thai Town, Little Armenia, Chinatown, Monterey Park, and I live near Little Saigon in Westminster, the largest Vietnamese-American community in the US (and I imagine the largest collection of Pho restaurants). At one Chinese restaurant nearby, it seemed that the staff was able to speak several languages to accommodate the variety of customers here (Thai, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Vietnamese…).

And lest you think I’m neglecting Europe, I pay weekly visits to a sandwich shop run by two French ladies. But besides being able to efficiently order off the menu, I think the real value of knowing other languages, even just a little bit, is to appreciate them. A friend from college once confided to me that she was freaked out when she heard her Vietnamese-American boyfriend speak in Vietnamese to his mother. It probably sounded like Klingon to her.

More recently, and typical of the immigration debate around here, I had a neighbor who complained to me that English was becoming a second language, his point being that uneducated illegal immigrants from south of the border were taking over (when I pointed out that most of the Spanish-speakers I meet also speak English, he retorted “I’m not talking about all those MBA-types you work with”).

This is sad, fear of foreign languages added to a whole ignorant package of xenophobia (there are still locally produced documentaries here defending the decision to intern Japanese-Americans during WWII). And sad that when you have those blinders on, you miss out on all the multicultural goodness around you. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll head out for lunch at the French cafe, pick up some groceries at the Asian supermarket, and spend the evening trying to figure out what those hot women on Telemundo are saying.