‘Read, read, read. Listen, listen, listen.’ — It’s Never Too Late to Learn Modern and Literary Chinese

The Other China



The study of the languages of China — be it Standard Chinese, Literary Chinese, Classical Chinese, various topolects (such as Cantonese, Hokkien or Wu-Shanghainese), or the non-Han languages of the People’s Republic — presents the student with numerous challenges. Among them, are the dual threats of ideology and technological. New China Newspeak, which is an ideologically inflected hybrid form of Chinese, presents a mind-numbing challenge to even the most assiduous individual. While A.I. translation apps increasingly offer a previously unimagined convenience, they also threaten to deflate the enthusiasm of those who study Chinese for anything other than the most pragmatic and pecuniary reasons. Then there is what we have long referred to as ‘Translated China’, a party-state idiolect that spews forth in English and a plethora of other languages, including the non-Standard Chinese languages of China itself, such as Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongolian.

[Note: Well-informed students of the Chinese vernacular invariably also learn about pre-1949 Republican-era written Chinese, including its demi-literary/vernacular form or 半文半白, the Guoyu 國語 that evolved on Taiwan from 1949, the Taiyu 台語 that has grown from strength to strength since, as well as internationalised Huayu 華語. On their linguistic journey they may well first encounter the Standard Chinese 普通話 formulated and policed by the Communist party-state from 1949, as well as the official parole of New China Newspeak and the amalgam Chinese that has flourished on the mainland since 1976. They may encounter the unique forms of Chinese of Hong Kong — both written Guoyu and Cantonese-inflected prose — that have been among the most inventive forms of the language. They may also be at home in the online Chinese that has luxuriously and anarchically flourished since the late 1990s and, hopefully, be schooled, if not fluent in, pre-Qin classical Chinese, the different forms of the written language that evolved during the dynastic era — from the Han to the end of the Qing — along with the various literary genres from poetry to prose in which those languages, including the pre-May Fourth vernacular, found expression. Beyond all of this, of course, they might also encounter the Chinese of the global ‘Sinosphere’ that has flourished from the mid-nineteenth century.]

Of course, it would be far too crude a claim to say that for governments, businesses and academia, ‘China’ is above all a subject of interest for suffocatingly narrow reasons. Therefore it would be too simplistic to assert that governments primarily recruit ‘China-capable’ individual for strategic and mercantile ends, or that businesses and investors are only interested in those adroit in risk assessment, number crunching and an array of analytical services. Moreover, it would be particularly churlish to suggest that global academia, at least in the case of the social sciences and humanities, is predominantly interested in ‘China as footnote’. Meanwhile, journalism, free-lance writing, translating, publishing, museology and the non-traditional academic world continue to provide fruitful possibilities for idiosyncratic expertise. (Yet, how well I recall the contemptuous tone in which university academo-crats and bean-counting managers at my former university referred to ‘curiosity driven research’.)

Fortunately, regardless of what the individual’s motivation may be when they take up the study of Chinese and the Chinese world, or the subsequent application to which they bend their knowledge, serendipity, personality and propinquity will invariably lead the rogue and eccentric few to delve deeper and wider. As has always been the case, downtime dilettantes will have a niche in the grand edifice of ‘China Studies’. Similarly, some ‘native’ and ‘heritage’ users of China’s languages will continue to engage with and create new possibilities for a realm of human expression that no political entity or border can contain.

Even so, the contemporary reality that we trace in our series Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium is something of a damp squib. We have previously observed that:

No matter how grandiloquent the claims or bombastic the pronouncements issuing out of Beijing, a dolorous reality is undeniable: as the country enjoys levels of wealth and achievement unique in the history of the People’s Republic, a cabal of Party leaders and their intellectual courtiers assert that it is their prerogative to determine and define what China is, what being Chinese means (and can mean), as well as what the legitimate aspirations, languages, histories, thoughts and the state of being of all Chinese peoples should be.

For those who live in a global Chinese world long nurtured by the riches of Taiwan and Hong Kong, a Mainland revived during the decades of economic reform and the creativity of a plethora of Chinese diasporic communities, it is a tragedy of immense proportions that a clutch of rigid, nay-saying bureaucrats thus holds sway and that it arrogates to itself the power to legislate and police the borders of what by all rights should be a cacophonous multiverse of Chinese possibility. By imposing an educational regime that, to quote Xi Jinping, ‘grabs them in the cradle’ 從娃娃抓起, by creating a censorious media monolith that spews forth a carefully curated ‘China Story’ and by pursuing a ‘chilly war’ internationally with the encouragement of battalions of online vigilantes, the Party continues to terraform China and create a monotonous landscape. All of this is aided and abetted by a sharp-edged new phase in a century-long contestation with the United States and the Western world.

from In You Should Look Back, the introduction to Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Below, after having reminded readers of our view of New Sinology 後漢學, we reproduce an essay by Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science and comparative literature at Indiana University at Bloomington, in the July 2023 issue of The Atlantic on the challenges and delights of learning languages. Although Hofstadter’s concerns may perhaps resonate more with the dilettante’s end of the spectrum of language learning, his timely meditation on A.I. may also elicit knowing nods from those for whom the boundless vistas of languages in general — and the lure of finding a voice of one’s own by employing the words of others — are a source both of wonderment and ensorcellment.

Following Douglas Hofstadter’s essay, we ‘Read, read, read. Listen, listen, listen.’, some reflections on learning languages along with suggested readings from Victor Mair, Sinologist extraordinaire. We conclude with an opuscule entitled ‘When ChatGPT Blew Smoke Up My Arse’.


‘Read, read, read. Listen, listen, listen. — Learn Modern and Literary Chinese Before It’s Too Late’ is a chapter both in The Other China and in Watching China Watching.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
19 July 2023


Further Reading:




New Sinology — A Laissez-passer
into the Invisible Republic of the Spirit


New Sinology as I have elaborated it over the years, is different in crucial regards from the academic Sinology discussed below [for the context of this remark, see New Sinology 1964 and 2022]. Nonetheless, my own approach to the study of the Chinese world in the twenty-first century also accords in many regards with F.W. Mote’s eloquent discussion of the integrality of the study of China. New Sinology as I formulate it also accords with the view expressed by Benjamin Schwartz that:

‘The essential point (banal but nevertheless true) is that whatever a man’s discipline, the broader and deeper his general culture — his “general education,” the more willing he is to bring whatever wisdom he has to bear on the subject he is treating.’

New Sinology has promoted the study of China and its living traditions in the context of the economic transformation and global influence both of China Proper, as well as that of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Over the post-Mao decades, this ‘Chinese world’ has experienced a cultural and intellectual efflorescence that, were it not for the constant interference of and censorship by the Communist Party, would be unique in modern Chinese history.

During the 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party had formally declared that after decades of radical social, political and economic change, it was now ‘bidding farewell to revolution’ and that as a ‘responsible ruling party’ (or a ‘party for all the people’) it would continue its quest for economic modernisation and global power while reaching a new accommodation with both the country’s imperial and republican pasts. During what I called this ‘reconciliation of history’, the Chinese party-state reoriented itself to claim a new dominion over China’s past, while rigorously re-affirming its sole right to determine both the nature and contents of China, Chinese culture, thought and history, as well as Chinese identity. This ambitious program was integral to Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s ‘Important Thinking Regarding the Three Represents’ 三個代表重要思想 announced in 2000. It would be the basis of the ‘Two One Hundred Years’ timetable for the Party in the twenty-first century first mooted by Hu Jintao and it is the bedrock of the worldview inherited and elaborated by Xi Jinping.

In 2001, the same year that Beijing was successful in its bid to hold the 2008 Summer Olympics, China acceded to the World Trade Organisation. Both of these developments were momentous — a fact reflected in the plans for the Olympics, which included an imperial-style makeover of the Chinese capital (see Beijing Reoriented, an olympic undertaking, 2007). Refashioning the Mao-era capital along the lines of Qianlong’s sacred city was a concrete expression of the nation’s ambitions, just as entering the WTO presaged an enhanced role in the global economy and, by extension, international affairs.

China was embraced on the world stage. Business, diplomatic and academic exchanges flourished. It was at this juncture that I contemplated the educational environment of my own university and of Chinese Studies in Australia more generally. Years of ‘market reforms’ had transformed tertiary education. As a quasi-business enterprise loosely based on market principles, it was more accessible to a greater number of what were now dubbed ‘customers’. Academic work flourished with the support of a research grant system and the number of undergraduates swelled. However, as contemporary China embraced the past in striking new ways, I felt that, apart from the established disciplines and new intellectual paradigms favoured by the global academy, it was more urgent than ever for students of China to have access to a kind of updated Sinological training that could also equip them to engage with that country’s boisterous lived reality and intellectual vitality. My concern in this regard was further fueled by the fact that, even as the numbers of economists, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists etc working ‘in the field’ proliferated, cuts in basic language courses, in particular those in literary/ classical Chinese, and undergraduate humanities subjects, left many of these well-honed disciplinarians sub-literate or semi-literate at best. Many could mine their subjects with aplomb, despite the fact that they were incapable of a meaningful and equitable engagement with the society with which they were dealing. As in the days of yore, ‘China’ was reduced to being a footnote in the grand narrative of Euramerican academia.

Paradoxically, among all of the other demands of modern university study, it seemed important that at least some students should be able to study aspects of China encapsulated in the old expression 文史哲 wén-shǐ-zhé — the literary, historical and philosophical tradition — so that they could appreciate, and perhaps even themselves aspire to, the kind of ‘comprehensive knowledge’ that is deeply admired in China (see Jao Tsung-I on 通 tōng — 饒宗頤與通人; and, China Watching in the Xi Jinping Era of Blindness and Deafness).

New Sinology suggested a form of academic Sinology that combines a fluency in the practices of the ‘China Studies’ that developed during the Cold War and the academic disciplines that have flourished in academic institutions world wide. New Sinology engages equally with Official China via its bureaucracy, ideology, propaganda and culture, as well as with Other Chinas — those vibrant and often disheveled worlds of alterity, be they in the People’s Republic, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or around the globe.

My advocacy of the study and reading of literary Chinese and attention to modern Chinese culture is not merely a way of justifying support for underfunded academic programs. As I have repeatedly argued, when engagement with China ‘went south’ — that is as the systemic inertia of party-state autocracy continued to cast a pall over contemporary Chinese life, as I had no doubt that it would following the events of 1989 — students and scholars would always have recourse to the vast world of literature, history and thought that make a study of China also a study of human greatness, genius and potential.

New Sinology is nothing less than a laissez-passer into the Invisible Republic of the Spirit.

from 斅 New Sinology 1964 and 2022, 24 December 2022

Hangzhou, July 2023. Photograph by Lois Conner


Today, though, it strikes me as possible—in fact, quite likely—that humans are collectively going to knuckle under and throw in the towel as far as foreign languages are concerned. Are we language users going to obsequiously hand over all engagement with other tongues to chatbots? Will young people in the coming decades share my youthful ardent desire to tackle towering linguistic Everests demanding long years of dedication? Or will they opt for the helicopter/chatbot pathway, preferring their linguistic lives to be struggle-free? If everything we might ever wish for is just handed to us gratis on a silver platter, then what, I wonder, is the purpose of living?

Douglas Hofstadter


Learn a Foreign Language Before It’s Too Late

Douglas Hofstadter

AI translators may seem wondrous but they also erode a major part of what it is to be human.


To me, AI’s scariest aspect is the so-called singularity—the threat of a runaway intelligence explosion leaving humanity in the dust. But today’s state of the art in artificial intelligence is already auguring smaller but still shattering scenarios.

Some people so deeply yearn to climb Mount Everest that they prepare for years, spend vast sums of money, exhaust themselves for weeks in the climb itself, and repeatedly put their lives at risk. Does that sound like you? Or would you rather just land on its summit in a helicopter and feast yourself on the great view? And what about scaling the metaphorical Everest of a foreign language? Two small episodes in my life in the past month led me to serious musings along these lines.

Two weeks ago, I watched, for the first time ever, a video of myself back in 2018 in Hangzhou, China, as I struggled mightily for three minutes to make a few off-the-cuff remarks to about 20 young people from Shanghai who belonged to a club of AI enthusiasts. They had traveled 200 miles to Hangzhou to meet me for dinner, and for two and a half hours we had spoken only English together, but toward the evening’s end they asked me if I wouldn’t mind saying something very brief in Chinese for those club members who hadn’t been able to make the trip. Uh-oh! Panic city! Even though I had devoted many arduous years to the study of Chinese (always thinking of the daunting phrase “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility” as a ridiculous understatement), and had worked like the devil during the previous three months in Hangzhou, I was caught way off guard by their request and, although in the end I obliged them, I felt super jittery while doing so. Shortly thereafter they sent me the video, but for all these years I hadn’t dared to look at even the opening few seconds of it, so scared was I of seeing myself linguistically stumble all over the place.

But what I saw, when I finally dared to watch myself very recently, was surprising. I saw a person who was not just struggling hard to express himself in a very difficult alien tongue, but who was actually doing a fairly decent job of it, while at the same time coming across as insecure and vulnerable, yet courageously willing to take the bull by the horns. In short, today’s me felt proud of my 2018 self! Since that day five years ago, sadly, my once-okay Chinese has gone to the dogs, and today I couldn’t give a three-minute talk in Chinese to save my life, so I’m thrilled to have proof that at one time in my life, I was actually able to wing it, actually able to give a tiny “talk” in Chinese, even if only a three-minute one.

So that’s the first episode; here’s the other. A few weeks ago, my very dear Italian friend Benedetto Scimemi passed away, and I spent hours writing heartfelt emails of condolence to all the members of his family. It happens that I lived in Italy for nearly three years and, on top of that, my two children and I have spoken Italian for 30 years as our family language, so my Italian is very fluent and comfortable—but, even so, it is not the Italian of a native speaker. In writing those difficult and emotional emails, I was constantly adjusting my words and phrases, lovingly remembering Benedetto and all the wonderful things we had done together, and pushing my Italian to its very limits. It took me perhaps two or three times as long as it would have taken me in English, but I did it with all my heart. I looked up lots of words in the big, heavy dictionary that I always keep right by my computer, and I felt my words were really me; my caring concentration on each and every turn of phrase made them mirror my feelings of love for my late friend in the most intensely personal way. Once again I was proud of myself and of the manner in which, over decades, I had come to be able to express myself clearly, strongly, and with a deeply felt voice in a tongue that was not my mother tongue.

Over the course of my life, I have studied lots of languages to various degrees, and I jokingly call myself “pilingual,” meaning that if you were to add up the fractional levels of mastery of all the languages I’ve tackled, you’d get a number a bit over three, counting English as one, French as 0.8, Italian as 0.7, and going down from there, with Chinese as maybe 0.3, at its apex (probably just 0.1 today).

Leaving aside my native tongue, I have devoted many thousands of hours of my life to seven languages (French, Italian, German, Swedish, Russian, Polish, and Chinese)—sometimes flailing desperately and sometimes finding enormous gratification. But through thick and thin, I have relentlessly bashed my head against each of those languages for years, because I love each one’s sounds, words, intonation patterns, idioms, proverbs, poetry, songs, and so on. It’s hard to think of anything else, in the world of the mind, that has pulled me as intensely as my craving to internalize the magic logic of an alien tongue from a faraway place.

But today we have Google Translate. Today we have DeepL. Today we have ChatGPT—and so on. There’s no need for me to list all the powerful technologies that allow anyone today—a monolingual American, say, who has never devoted a single moment to learning, say, Chinese—to write fluent passages in Chinese. Today it’s a piece of cake to send an email in a tongue you don’t know a word of. You just click on “Translate” and presto! There it is! Or at least, there it is, in a certain sense. Assuming that there are no egregious translational blunders (which there often still are), what you are sending off is slick but soulless text.

Just imagine if the Shanghai AI club had asked me to say a few words for the club’s absent members not in Chinese but in English, and then, while I was speaking, they ran my English words through a speech-transcribing app, then a translation app, then a speech-producing app, so that my English words came out, in real time, in Chinese. (In fact, if this were happening today, the speech-producing app could even use my very own voice, speaking with a perfect Mandarin accent!) Had the club gone that techie-type route, which they might well have liked to do, we could have bypassed any need for me to struggle and strain to express myself in their tongue. For both me and the club members, it would have been effortless.

However, in this scenario, the video watchers would be deprived of coming to know key aspects of the very human personality of their invitee. They would not see Douglas Hofstadter (known in Chinese as “Hou Daoren”) groping for Chinese words, would not witness his insecurity, his vulnerability, or, for that matter, his dogged determination; they would merely see an American casually speaking in his native tongue (though what they would hear is perfect Chinese); they would get no sense for the real me, who had devoted thousands of hours, spread out over many years, to grappling with their native tongue. My ideas would come across, more or less, but not those hidden aspects of my self.

But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. Today’s AI technology allows people of different cultures to communicate instantly and effortlessly with one another. Wow! Isn’t that a centuries-long dream come true, weaving the world ever more tightly together? Isn’t it a wonderful miracle? Isn’t the soon-to-arrive world where everyone can effortlessly speak every language just glorious?

Some readers will certainly say “yes,” but I would say “no.” In fact, I see this looming scenario as a great tragedy. I see it as the beginning of the end of the age-old tradition of learning foreign languages—not only here in America, but even in lands like Holland and Sweden, fabled for their citizens’ near-universal mastery of several tongues. The problem is that people of all cultures instinctively follow the path of least resistance.

Why would anyone want to devote thousands of hours to learning a foreign language if, by contrast, they could simply talk into their cellphone and it would instantly spit out “the same message” in any language of their choice, in their own voice, and with a perfect accent to boot? Who wouldn’t want to be able to have complex conversations with anyone they wish, in any country, no matter what language it involves? Why bother to take countless courses in Chinese and still feel deeply inadequate in it when, in a flash, you can communicate not only in Chinese but also in French, Hungarian, Swahili, and so on?

Suppose I had composed my condolences to Benedetto’s family in English and had then run them through a translation program such as DeepL. The words would have come out very differently from what I wrote in Italian. When I was writing in Italian, I was thinking in Italian, not in English. I was using words and phrases that I have made my own over decades, by having countless intimate conversations with close Italian friends (such as Benedetto himself), by reading hundreds of children’s books in Italian to my kids when they were little tykes, by listening hundreds of times to CDs of lilting Italian songs from the 1930s, by devouring Italian newspapers, by giving untold dozens of lectures in Italian, by watching scores of old Italian movies, by memorizing a few Italian poems, and so on. All that unique flavor, reflecting the myriad idiosyncratic pathways by which I lovingly internalized the Italian language, would be missing from an email that I composed in English and that was instantly converted into Italian by a machine.

You might say that such a loss is a small price to pay—a teeny price to pay!—for the amazing luxury of being able to produce flawless, flowing emails in a hundred different languages, the luxury of being able to give lectures in real time in a hundred different languages, and so forth and so on. Well, I would reply that the “you” who is “writing” or “speaking” so fluently in all these different languages is not you at all. It is, rather, a deepfake version (or a set of deepfake versions) of you.

When I was in the roughest times in my endless battles with the Chinese language, I often wished that I could just get an injection that would make me perfectly fluent in Chinese in a flash. How wonderful it would be to be able, at last, to understand everyone around me, to say anything I wanted to say, and so on! But when I thought about it for only a few seconds, I realized that after getting such an injection, I would not feel proud of having learned Chinese by struggling for many years. My instant fluency in Chinese would, in that case, be a trivial acquisition rather than a precious goal obtained thanks to immense hard work. It would mean nothing to me, emotionally. It would be like arriving at the summit of Everest in a helicopter. It would be like taking a new wonder drug that hugely boosted my muscles and hugely sped up my reflexes, making me (even at age 78!) suddenly able to run faster than anyone else in the world. Next thing you know, this old geezer would be winning a gold medal in the Olympic 400 meters. But big deal! “My” gold medal would be a hollow victory proving nothing about my athletic abilities. It would be purely the result of technological cheating. Likewise, my Chinese-fluency injection would be a hollow victory, because “my” Chinese would not in any way represent my very human, very fallible, but also very determined mind and spirit.

When, in my teenage years, I was striving so passionately to learn French, I sometimes wished that I had just grown up in France with my American parents, so that both French and English were 100 percent native to me. But when I thought about it more carefully, I realized that the reason I was so in love with French was precisely that it was not my mother tongue, and that if it had been, then I wouldn’t be able to hear it in anything like the same way I heard it as an outsider.

Of course, over my six-plus decades of speaking French, I have become less and less of an outsider to it, but still I have somehow preserved the intense love that came from confronting the huge challenge of making French my own in my teenage years, as opposed to simply imbibing it like mother’s milk, as a small child. And I am oh so proud of myself if, after half an hour’s conversation, my native-French interlocutor is startled to learn that I did not grow up speaking French. By dint of intense concentration over decades, I’ve earnedthat supreme compliment, and knowing I’ve reached that long-dreamed-for level thanks to my years of really hard work is as great a feeling as any I have ever had.

Today’s young people (even in Holland and Sweden) who grow up with translation software, however, will not be lured in the same way that I, as a teenager, was lured by the fantastic, surrealistic goal of internalizing another language. They won’t feel the slightest temptation to devote a major fraction of their lives to slowly and arduously acquiring the sounds, vocabulary, grammar, and cultural richness of another language. To them, someone with my self-punishing attitude would seem hopelessly wedded to the past. Why on earth cling to riding a horse or a bicycle for transportation, when you can drive a car (not to mention flying in an airplane)? What’s the point of going super slowly when you can go superfast? Okay, okay, on a horse or bicycle you’ll see the scenery a bit better, but is it really worth it, when you can cross an entire continent in hours or days, instead of in weeks or months?

The question comes down to why we humans use language at all. Isn’t the purpose of language just the communication of facts? If so, then why not simply go for maximizing the number of facts transferred per second? Well, to me, this sounds like a shockingly utilitarian and pragmatic description of what I view as a perpetually astonishing and quasi-magical phenomenon that lies at the very core of conscious life.

When I speak any language, as all my friends know well, I am always searching for the most appropriate word or idiom, frequently hesitating, stumbling, or suddenly changing course midstream; constantly joking by playing with ambiguity; having fun by putting on droll accents and personas, not to mention coming out with puns (some lovely, some lousy); using alliterative phrases; concocting new words on the fly; making accidental mistakes and laughing at myself; committing deliberate grammatical errors; unconsciously blending idioms and thus creating delightful new turns of phrase; tossing in words from other languages left and right; citing proverbs and quoting snippets of poetry; mixing metaphors; etc., etc. Speaking any language, for me, is a living, dynamic process that is permeated by my own unique humanness, with all its frailties and strengths. How is all of this wildly bubbling richness in Language A going to be mirrored in real time in Language B by a mechanical device that has nothing of those qualities driving it, that has no sense of humor, that has no understanding of irony or self-mockery, that has no awareness of how phrases are unconsciously blended, and so on?

For me, using language is the very essence of being human. When I speak, I am communicating not only facts, but a way of being. Through my word choices and subtle intonations and tiny hesitations and droll puns and dumb errors (and so on), I am revealing who I am. I am not a persona, but a person.

Today, though, it strikes me as possible—in fact, quite likely—that humans are collectively going to knuckle under and throw in the towel as far as foreign languages are concerned. Are we language users going to obsequiously hand over all engagement with other tongues to chatbots? Will young people in the coming decades share my youthful ardent desire to tackle towering linguistic Everests demanding long years of dedication? Or will they opt for the helicopter/chatbot pathway, preferring their linguistic lives to be struggle-free? If everything we might ever wish for is just handed to us gratis on a silver platter, then what, I wonder, is the purpose of living?

As my friend David Moser put it, what may soon go down the drain forever, thanks to these new AI technologies, is the precious gift that one can gain only by immersing oneself deeply in another culture and thereby acquiring an entirely new set of ways of looking at the world. It’s a gift that can’t help but turn any human being into a far richer and broader one. But David fears that it may soon become as rare as hen’s teeth. And, I might add, David knows perfectly whereof he speaks, because in his 30s he recklessly threw himself into the bustling, boiling cauldron of China and its mysterious languages, and after long years of tenaciously clambering up its nearly vertical slopes (sorry for the mixed metaphor!), he emerged as a marvelously fluent speaker of Chinese, able to come out with breathtakingly witty puns on the fly and to do stand-up comedy on national television, not to mention hosting his own weekly TV show, in Chinese, about little-known facets of Beijing.

To Mo Dawei, as David is known in China, it’s incredibly depressing to contemplate the profound impoverishment of people’s mental and emotional lives that is looming just around every corner of the globe, thanks to the slick seductiveness of AI translation apps, insidiously creeping their way into ordinary people’s lives and sapping their desire to make other tongues their own.

When children first hear the sounds of another language, they can’t help but wonder: What in the world would it feel like to speak that language? Such eager childlike curiosity might seem universal and irrepressible. But what if that human curiosity is suddenly snuffed out forever by the onrushing tsunami of AI? When we collectively abandon the age-old challenge of learning the languages of other lands, when we relinquish that challenge to ultra-rapid machines that have no inner life of their own but are able to give us fluent but fake facades in other languages, then we will have lost a major part of what it is to be human and alive.



Read, read, read.  Listen, listen, listen.

Is there no / any longer a reason / need to learn a foreign language?

Victor Mair

14 July 2023


To the thoughts of Hofstadter and Moser, permit me to add a few of my own.

First of all, there are some things I can say in certain languages that I cannot say in others.  For example, in Nepali, I love to say “Bāphre bāph!”  Ditto for “Wah!” in Cantonese.  And how about “Schmetterling”?  Nearly all languages must have a word for “butterfly”, but the German one is “something else”, eh?  And on and on and on.  This is why I often think in multiple languages to call up the exact images and feelings I want to express.

Next, learning different languages opens up whole realms of intellection that theretofore I didn’t even know existed.

The sounds, man, the sounds.  Like “shǎbùlèngdēngde” for “daft” in Mandarin.

For me, learning languages is not drudgery, it’s fun.  I think a large part of that is the methods I use:  don’t memorize (sǐbèi 死背) vocabulary, grammar, paradigms, or anything else.  Absorb the language through immersion and use.  Expose yourself to as much of the real language as you can get access to.  Read, read, read.  Listen, listen, listen.

This is why, as I travel around the world, I meet young people whose English is astonishingly good and natural, say, in the middle of Kazakhstan — even though they’ve never been abroad.  When I ask them how they do it, they tell me they watch TV shows and films, listen to popular music, read anime, and so forth.

Finally, I’ll conclude by saying a few words about the Middlebury way of learning languages.

Total immersion.

Strict language pledge for the whole summer.

The students enrolled in the Middlebury summer sessions make quantum leaps in their command of whatever language they are learning:  Abenaki, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish.

I jumped from 1st year to 4th year Chinese back in 1968 when I was a summer student at Middlebury.  In the summer of 1972, I was the”bilingual secretary” of the Chinese School, because they needed someone like me to communicate with “the outside world”.

If you ever get a chance, go there yourself and get really good at whatever language you’re really interested in.  You won’t regret it.  But you have to have the time to set aside two months some summer.  Do nothing but learn a language.

A final, final word, suitable for the overall theme of this post.  I have a friend who is enrolled in the 2nd year level of the German School this summer.  Of course, she has taken the language pledge, so she won’t communicate in any language other than German while she is at Middlebury.  She writes to me in flawless, flowing, idiomatic German, all coming out of her own brain. My German is good enough that I can understand 95% of what she writes on the first pass and can pick up the rest with the aid of a dictionary.  When I write back, I make a rough draft with the aid of AI, then revise it according to my own taste.  The problem is that I can’t get the Du and Sie forms right.  Gender, tenses, mood, etc. are all problematic.  It’s like when I speak Russian:  my Russian friends call it “grammarless Russian”, and I’m content with that, so long as I get my ideas across.  I used to score high on “communicative competence” tests in many languages that I didn’t know very well by traditional standards because I was clever at devising makeshift means for conveying what it was that I wanted to say.

Be bold, be brave.  Just do it.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]



When ChatGPT Blew Smoke Up My Arse

Geremie R. Barmé

18 July 2023

In a whimsical mood on a rainy winter’s afternoon — and after having read too many articles and listened to too many podcasts on AI, ChatGPT and the drear Singularity — I logged in to OpenAI’s ChatGPT app and made a random, albeit solipsistic, request:

‘Write a paragraph on New Sinology in the style of Geremie R. Barmé’.

Under the title ‘New Sinology Renaissance’, this is how ‘they’ responded:

‘In this era of dynamic Sinology, a new intellectual landscape emerges, shaped by the evolving contours of China’s complex reality. Drawing inspiration from the transformative ideas of Geremie R. Barmé, we witness a rigorous exploration of Chinese history, culture, and politics, infused with critical acuity and intellectual daring. Barmé’s influence echoes through the works of a new generation of Sinologists, who navigate the treacherous waters of China’s past and present with unwavering dedication to intellectual freedom and nuanced understanding. They excavate forgotten narratives, challenge hegemonic discourses, and engage in a robust dialogue that transcends national boundaries. This new Sinology is a profound testament to the power of knowledge and the unwavering commitment to truth. It serves as a beacon, illuminating our understanding of China and its place in the world, while emboldening us to embrace a future of intellectual curiosity and cultural empathy.’

Like Zhuangzi’s butterfly, I was confused: was ChatGPT ‘hallucinating’ me, or was I ‘hallucinating’ ChatGPT?

Regardless, now I only have to wait until one of the ever-proliferating A.I. programs consumes enough text to be able to translate and annotate accurately, fluently and stylishly the prose and poetry of Professor Xu Zhangrun.

I will embrace redundancy.