The charm of language

Posted on November 15, 2021

I’m a language lover, so reading and writing are my favourite activities. Reading something good is like having an intimate and pleasant talk with a friend. Writing, on the other hand, is a conversation between our physical self and our mind. But as much as I love language, the first time I realized its charm was after I started to use English, my second language, in my everyday life and at work.

Taking language for granted

Language is like air: it’s indispensable to all living creatures, including human beings, yet it could be the last thing that ever comes to our attention. When we speak in our first language in an informal setting, such as at home or with friends, words seem to have their own volition, coming out as naturally as breath. In our countless daily activities, we seldom use language in service of a specific goal or reflect on how we use it, just as we rarely consider breathing techniques unless we’re doing something that incorporates breathing properly. Because language is considered essential just to carry out our routine, we lose the opportunity to observe it objectively. Consequently, we’re deprived of the chance to discover its charm.

The charm of language is like a seed that sprouts when we tend to it with curiosity and attention. If I were a native English speaker, I wouldn’t be exposed to its charm. I was a lawyer in China, and because of my love for language, I’m eloquent and a skilled writer. Both I and the people who know me would rate my Chinese as excellent. Before I settled in Canada, even when I wrote legal documents, I hardly ever grappled with words. The Chinese language was hardly a blip on my radar, let alone a matter of curiosity or something to be given any special attention.

Becoming a student and teacher

After I moved to Canada, improving my English became my main interest. I seized every opportunity to work on my English. One strategy I adopted was to work in sectors, such as interpretation, where the correct and accurate use of language is crucial. One of the jobs I took on was teaching schoolchildren Chinese. Though the school used Chinese textbooks, most of the students could barely understand Chinese. Therefore, I had to rely on English to teach Chinese.

After I taught a couple of classes, it dawned on me that my Chinese wasn’t as good as I had thought. There were quite a few basics of the Chinese language that I needed to review. Chinese has many homonyms but only four tones, so the mispronunciation of a character may cause a communication failure. On that point, I noticed that my tones for some characters were incorrect due to the influence of my dialect. The order of the strokes when writing Chinese characters, another basic element that I had long forgotten, is quite helpful to students. It helps them to grasp the structure of the characters and leads them down a path towards mastering Chinese characters, the foundation of written Chinese. As a result, I began to pay attention to some basic Chinese language elements that I had long ignored. My native language radiated its charm when I was trying to improve my English through teaching Chinese. I ended up improving both my English and my Chinese. Every step forward in my English language learning reveals something amazing to me, whether relevant or irrelevant to language.

The more I learned, the more I saw what needs to be learned. The unlimited room for improvement in language opens my eyes and mind and guides me to look at the world through a new lens. I used to think language was simply a tool for communication, but now I know that it’s far more than that. We are what we say and think. The charm of language resides in its power of transformation.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Zhang Hui

Zhang Hui

Zhang Hui is a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant (RCIC), a writer, an associate member of the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia (STIBC), and a lawyer and arbitrator who used to practice in China. She enjoys reading and writes in various genres. As a language lover, she believes in the power of words: we are what we say and think. Zhang Hui prefers to keep her name in the Chinese form, with the last name preceding the first name.

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Submitted by Thomas Lei on November 16, 2021, at 9:36

Thanks for sharing your opinion.

Submitted by Frances Urdininea on November 16, 2021, at 12:31

Congratulations on a very well written article. Thank you for sharing your reflexions on the richness of languages.

Submitted by Zhang Hui on January 22, 2022, at 12:29

Thanks for your kind comments, Frances.

Submitted by Jin XiangMei on November 16, 2021, at 23:21

Thank you for you sharing. It open something new to me. Maybe I can't improve my English because I thought language was a just a tool and lost the curiosity to learn it. And also I want to ask you a question, what do you think about AI translation? To me, as AI translation has become better and better, learning a second language seems to be less important.

Submitted by Zhang Hui on November 17, 2021, at 21:52

AI's help is limited, as language is a bridge that connects people, not just a tool. On another note, my personal view is that if we rely too much on AI, the more the AI advances, the dumber we become. Learning a second language opens a new world to the learner.

Submitted by Allan Champion on January 20, 2022, at 17:27

AIs can be very helpful when you have no time to learn each language on a journey. We met one fellow from China who was motorcycling across Canada then down to Argentina. He had no English capability but he sat with us for dinner and was able to communicate via a hand held device that we spoke into and it translated.
Thank you for the wonderful article Hui.

Submitted by Marcela on January 7, 2022, at 15:52

Thank you for your explanation. We can see your passion for this language. This encouraged me to be continue study more and more.

Submitted by Zhang Hui on January 22, 2022, at 12:33

I do believe we are what we say, mentally or verbally. Good luck with your study - we are all students of life.

Submitted by Samson Young on January 20, 2022, at 12:28

Wow! I really enjoy reading what you have written and what a refreshing look at languages! Thank you for sharing your experience. I see and resonance with pretty much all you have written above, as I too, love languages. I already spoke four languages before arriving in Canada a few decades ago as one among the thousands of refugees from one of the South-East Asian countries and had to learn yet another new language, English. I too, use to take the languages I know for granted as they come naturally to me without giving much thought or analysis; the same way English comes naturally to a native English speaker. So, during my course of acquiring the English language (ESL classes) and when I came into some grammar, spelling, pronunciation etc., I asked my native English-speaking friends and even teachers why a certain word spelled a certain way and why it sounds differently than it spelt. Often I was told, that they did not know and the words are the way they are.
In retrospect, I was trying to learn and master the English language in a logical (like computer language, which was my studies in Algonquin College later on) method. But of course language is a rich entity intertwined with cultural; belief; tradition and human experience. With the unsatisfactory explanation provided above, this has forced me to look inward, into the languages I know and then I discovered that all the languages I know DO have the similar illogical senses and their odds which I could not explain and have to rely on the same answer when students of mine, friends who ask me that very same question: "Why are these words formed/pronounced these way?" with, "I don't know, that's they way they are."...
Over the decades, my love and passion for languages has grown and it has pushed me to pursue and learn other languages such as French, Spanish, Cantonese (I know, this is kind of odd that I learned Cantonese in Canada!), Latin, ASL (American Sign Language, as it turns out, the ASL and Chinese have so much in common in the logical flow and formation of verbs, nouns and adjectives with no articles, no number, no gender etc.), Swahili etc. I love languages so much that I have made it my life-time goal to learn and achieve at least the functional levels in speaking, writing and reading in ten languages including the six (6) official languages of the UN (e.g. Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). Will I ever achieve this goal of mine? Well, for me, the language learning is not a trip with a final destination, rather, it's a journey of a life time, it's an ongoing effort...

Submitted by Zhang Hui on January 22, 2022, at 12:39

Hi Samson, we all share the “final destination” where nobody desires to go to, so enjoy the journey, whatever journey it is…

Submitted by Ruby on May 23, 2024, at 4:43

I want to know if the title should be written as " The Charm of Languages".