A Bilingual Writing Adventure

Last week I was invited by my friend to join her and another Japanese girl to eatbrunch and go shopping in Kowloon. Claiming that she spoke poor English andlittle Japanese, my friend insisted that I translate her words into Englishduring her chat with our Japanese companion. I spoke in a slightly nervousmanner, as usual, and gradually grew more fluent and confident as the conversationcontinued. Whenever I am obliged to perform as a translator in these bilingualoccasions, it nearly becomes my unintentional instinct to feel uneasy at thebeginning, with crystal-clear awareness of the foreignness of my speech. However,it is constantly amazing to realize that I am a year-three English major now, havingbeen learning the foreign language for 15 years. 

I could well remember the oral test question during the enrollment exam of theEnglish Department in Tsinghua University, “Please explain the correlationamong language, culture, and literature.” I also remember that I gave logicallytricky answers to show off my mind-processing capability, like “Language is thefoundation of literature, and literature is the crystallization of culture.” Asa student who does excellently in both Chinese and English and finally chooseEnglish literature as my major, I have been engulfed by the three core notionsduring schooldays. I have a natural interest for writing, and to write ineither Mandarin Chinese or English enables me to perceive the subtledifferences when thinking bilingually and to overcome the exoticism incross-cultural inadaptability. Languages, on which culture and writings build,do differ from each other in influencing the way we think. However, throughoutmy bilingual writing experiences, I am able to conclude some universal stages inthe learning-to-write process.

As for the earliest years of learning my mother tongue, it was likely innate to acceptinformation from colloquial contexts and to articulate logical meaning long beforeI could write anything down on paper. I used to be among those precociouschildren, especially in the field of linguistic ability. My mother alwaysboasted that I was able to speak meaningfully and pronounce clearly since 10months’ old, while the average kids might begin quite after one year old andoften slurred their words at the very beginning. Then I started to compose shortpassages in pre-school years. My first creations were recorded by my grandpa,and later by myself. Once I found a cartoon-covered booklet in which a journalon a trip to the Shanghai Botany Garden was dictated by me and scribbled downby my grandfather. The 100-word journal was unembellished and plainly simple,yet clear enough for me to recreate the travel route by reading the passageyears later. Also in this booklet, there were some short childish poems in myown foolish twisted handwriting, basically pieces of verse-formed prose on everydaytopics, such as “The flowery umbrella is so pretty / big, round and useful. /We hold it in the rain / and everybody likes it.” The words are childish, yetthe logic they involve is correct. These mini-paragraphs and bad poems were theoriginal attempts at self-expression through language. Though limited inlinguistic proficiency, they did quite well in exhibiting the wholeness ofmeaning. When one mastering the mother tongue, thinking and picturing meaningcome before means of expression; the first-language-speaking environment had provided me with the ability to think as a whole before I was capable of stating my thoughts skillfully. 

Nevertheless,the preliminary stage was different when it came to foreign language studies. Ibegan to study English as a foreign language at an auxiliary class, a yearbefore elementary school. In China in early 2000’s, scarce English-speakingenvironment was provided, and exam-oriented teaching remained the mainstreamapproach. Instead of grasping meaning before expression as I did with MandarinChinese, there I learned meaning and expression simultaneously by attaching anEnglish word to its Chinese equivalent. This word-for-word learning device was inflexiblebut indeed efficient at the start, for it constructed a corresponding frameworkon the basis of my mother tongue. Besides, the exam-focused teaching encouragedme to lay emphasis on grammatical correctness; students were required to copyeach sentence structure four times in the exercise book in order to remember it.But the shortcomings of this kind of teaching grew conspicuous in the laterprogress. Too grammatically-conscious and dependent on Chinese, my ability toform ideas freely in English was confined by both the attention to structural precisionand the unconscious translation from Chinese expressions. This was the casethroughout my elementary years. Therefore, my English writing skills laggedbehind.

Despite a different beginning due to the language environment and teaching approaches,my writing in either language experienced a period of “vocabulary explosion”which was achieved through extensive reading. In terms of writing in Chinese,in elementary school, I absorbed all sorts of nutrition from the fertile soilof books. I read books of Chinese ancient culture, general history, astronomy,botany, and zoology, acquiring new knowledge and concepts to broaden my horizon;I too tried to collect ornamental descriptions of beautiful scenery in order toenlarge my vocabulary. Soon I started imitating this pattern in mycompositions. At that time I was particularly fond of writing travellingjournals where I would elaborate on exquisite details of the landscape, using everyflamboyant word to embellish the passage. A sentence could be like “The azuresea, encircled by a crescent of grotesque cliffs, is dyed golden-scarlet by theaurora.” I even coined words myself to increase the variety of diction; forinstance, I would put the characters “绮”(qi, splendid) and “秀”(xiu, beautiful) together to coin anon-existing word “绮秀”,which meant splendid and beautiful. Now I have long relinquished thispretentious writing style, but the practice of word choice did prepare me forthe proper accumulation of vocabulary for writing. 

As for English writing, similarly, the accumulation span began in the junior high school.I read passages in English on various topics to have access to unknown wordsand diverse linguistic environment. I still relied on the dictionary and the unconsciousinner translation, yet having been exposed to different contexts where thewords and collocations lay, “the equivalent in Chinese” was no longer thesingle vehicle by which I could understand and use a word. Apart from thiscross-lingual monotonous link, I tended to draw a whole picture where languagewas embedded in a set of its own customary usage and cultural contexts. 

After mastering fundamental language skills and accumulating appropriate vocabulary, Iwas trying to self-formalize and find the suitable style of writing for myself.In terms of writing in Chinese, no longer focusing on flowery descriptions, Itried to write on various subject matters and practiced critical thinkingskills and imagination. I wrote book reviews to express individual reflectionson the text. My preference for writing weekly journals then was to collect apiece of news and gave my own critical comments. These argumentative writingsprepared me for logical thinking beyond mere textual level. I also had someinitial tries at creative writing. Even till now I have kept girlish notebooksin which I scribbled fragments of stories, inspired both by life experiences orpure imagination. When my best friend left Shanghai for the States for studiesand I could expect nothing but long-term separation, I had my heroine cry in mystory for the loss of friendship. The frequent alternation between subjectmatters added to the diversity of my writing and helped me explore unknownpossibilities.

Besides,reading classic literature ignited my aspiration for more proficiency inwriting as well as cultivated my more profound critical thinking. My frenzy forChinese literature began with Cao Xueqin’s TheDream of Red Mansions, while western literature with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Recalling from thepresent, how I was attracted to reading classics seemed merely out ofserendipity. I would never forget that it was a warm afternoon in October, whenthe golden sunlight penetrated the opaque curtain in my bedroom. Near thewindowsill there used to be a little wooden 4-layer bookshelf where lay booksthat I had never touched. Out of curiosity I picked up Gone with the Wind from the shelf; I was immediately arrested afterthe first sentence on Scarlett’s appearance. Since then literature has openedup for me a brand-new dimension, other than the informative books I read before,of an imaginary setting where human nature and emotions were given full play. Forsome time I unintentionally imitated the writing style of some great authors Iadmired. Shortly after I read Les Miserables,flowery diction and magnificent eloquence dominated my composition; whenfascinated by George Eliot’s autobiographic novel The Mill on the Floss, I learned from the intertwining of fluentdepictions and the author’s reasonable comments. The more extensive I read, mytaste for literature grew finer and more personal, and with these attempts to changewriting styles I became increasingly aware of the most comfortable way for me. 

My self-formalization of English writing took place in the 3rd year ofjunior high school, thanks to my English teacher Ms. Yu. It was the very first systematicEnglish writing course I’ve ever taken. Before this course we had regarded anEnglish essay as a mere piling-up of English sentences, or as the exotic formof a Chinese essay. To get us started, Ms. Yu emphasized the incompatible differencebetween the two languages. Mandarin Chinese was loosely-linked in grammar butjoined by meaning, while English was a much more structural-bound language. “我吃了口菜,真好吃。”[I taste the dish, (the dish is) so delicious.] was an incorrect run-onsentence where the two clauses were complete sentences with different subjects,but in Chinese it was correct because the two clauses were consistent inmeaning. Ms. Yu suggested us to use a clear “introduction-points-conclusion”format and transitional signals to maintain a limpid structure. As my Englishwriting competence was fairly limited then, using a fixed “first of all… then…finally…”model worked well for me to arrange my opinions as well as for the readers tolocate my main arguments. Following her instructions, I mastered the basic organizationof a 120-word logical and meaningful English composition, and some of herpertinent requirements could still be applied to my 2000-word papers incollege. However complex the sentences and the logic are, I always bear in minda well-knit overall structure and a consistent logic link. I shall never forgethow considerably the writing course has helped me; it paved a brick path upon amuddy wasteland, leading a confounded and inexperienced junior writer like methrough the mist.

After all these bold attempts and self-locating to find a suitable way of writing, graduallyI could break away from the outer barriers and create my own style. As forChinese, in high school, advanced in diction and quite well-accumulated inliterary form, theme, and writing style, I could attach a certain “made-by-Lu”label to my compositions. I was writing in a rational and concise way, withclearly-organized arguments and a smooth flow of description. Derived from allthe either terrific or terrible writing practices, I concluded by a suitableway of writing that could fully display my uniqueness and strong points. 

In terms of English, the outcome was so natural that I failed to detect the pointwhere I discarded the inflexible “first…second…third…” model. With the progressin English proficiency, the gap between Chinese and English as a tool ofcommunication narrowed. I basically transcended the obstacle of communicationand was able to convey my ideas in English writing nearly as well as in Chinesewriting. Yet I didn’t realize the change until I handed in an Englishcomposition on whether Chinese champion athletes should be recruited intouniversities without a standard enrollment test. I wrote the article in acasual chain of thoughts, entirely getting rid of the teacher’s suggestion of astructural-bound format. Feeling a little upset about drifting apart from theteacher’s requirements, I went to consult her whether it is suitable to write this way. The teacher read my article and answered, “You are already beyond therequirements.” 

Looking back on my writing advancements of Chinese and English, I am amazed at the similaritiesthey share. Although English lagged behind and lacked cultural contextsinitially, the writing progress in both languages witnessed word accumulationthrough reading, standardizing and seeking proper writing style, and forming personalizedwriting habit, and thus I feel comfortable when expressing in either language.Yet to cross the language barrier does not mean to assimilate Chinese and English writing. I am still on my way to convey myself bilingually when usinglanguage as a tool, and to be conscious of and try to make use of the subtletyof language as a carrier of culture. 

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