Tag Archives: Language

Embracing Imperfection

When I first arrived in Germany, I immediately noticed the overwhelming number of flower shops. Around the corner, on a quiet sideway, or even in a train station, I always could find stores full of colorful and vibrant blossoms. And locals loved to decorate their homes with various flowers — especially on their balconies, which greatly beautified the street view. Those little terrace gardens seemed integrated into the traditional style of homes not only in Germany but also in other European countries, such as France and Switzerland. Tourists love to take pictures of themselves standing in front of those traditional houses with little flower boxes by the windows.

Once I had lived there longer and observed my host mother spend a great amount of time working in her mini garden on the balcony, I realized that flowers are not just decorations but an integral part of the life of local residents. After all, gardening takes a lot of time and energy: those fragile plants cannot survive without constant attention. But there is another difficulty that I considered to be more troubling: No matter how much effort you put into prolonging the life of flowers, they still die pretty quickly. The sorrow of this inevitable loss, this sense of powerlessness when watching their transient lives end, had prevented me from using any flower to decorate my own home back in Shanghai. I used only greenery to fill the open spaces of my apartment, which, although still perishable, can at least last longer than evanescent flowers.

But then, while I was in Germany, I constantly came across florists on the street, and I found it hard to move my eyes away from the pure beauty and liveliness of these blooming flowers. I finally conceded and decided to buy a few to put in my dorm room. I chose some pink roses and white daisies at first, and I felt my room immediately brighten. Every time I opened the door, the sight of my flowers brought me joy. This was the beginning of a transition in my attitude toward not only flower decoration but also something beyond that.

Later on, I added some yellow carnations, and when tulips were in season, I brought in their various colors once in a while, and even decorated the Smith Center at the university with colorful tulips. Still, I did feel sad when the flowers began to fade and finally wither away, and I pondered the meaning of blooming—“If only they knew their tragic ending from the very beginning!” I said to myself. How can they embrace their destiny and still express joy so wholly and genuinely?

I couldn’t help but reflect about myself. I realized I had the tendency to not even start something if I thought I could not do it perfectly well. This may be an extreme version of my motto as a “pessimistic optimist,” but I did adopt this perfectionist-leaning belief, which often held me back from unpredictable novel attempts. When applied to language learning, my perfectionist mindset disturbs me, as I have to admit the fact that I may never reach the same fluency as the native speakers. No matter how hard I have tried, I will always speak with a certain deficiency. I will never reach “perfection.”

Studying in Germany and using a third language was yet another endeavor to force myself to step further out of my comfort zone and “destabilize” my life. I have always believed in the meaning of destabilizing one’s regular life, and this time, it proved worthwhile as I learned to embrace the eternal imperfection of life. That is, I was forced to express myself even in a broken way. Before being in Germany, I had always faltered when it came to speaking German, since I had less time to prepare and I feared making mistakes. “I’m not ready.” I always told myself, and failed to realize that I could never be ready unless I took the first step and started speaking more freely. In Germany I began to communicate with all kinds of people and to learn how to bear the embarrassment of making mistakes and the fear of exposing my weaknesses. I thought about the courage of my fragile yet stubborn flowers and entered the uncharted wilderness of a language that is foreign to me. Once, I was afraid that when I spoke up, people would think me rather dull if I could not convey my ideas clearly or made stupid grammatical mistakes. But if I waited until I got every gender and adjective ending in German perfectly correct before starting to speak, I would never be able to voice even one single sentence. Desire to communicate won out: I learned to cast aside my worries about others’ opinions of me and clumsily began to build my German one phrase after another.

I used to ask myself, why should I start something if I could never reach perfection? By the end of my stay in Germany, I finally realized that the premise of this introspective question was wrong — and my wilted flowers knew better than I did. The purpose was never to be perfect but to start, to bloom, to step into the turbulence of life, and to give the best that one can with the gift of life.


Tianhua Zhu ’18  is currently a Senior, majoring in both Government and Linguistics. Looking at the intersection between the two majors, she is interested in the politics of language and seeks to understand the language of politics. She participated in the Smith Program in Hamburg in Spring 2017 and took advantage of the great opportunity to travel around several countries in Europe. Originally coming from Shanghai, China, she would like to accumulate more international experiences and bring together distinct perspectives echoing through the East and the West.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Mutually Intelligible

“Are you incapable of complexity?” –Mountains beyond Mountains

When twenty-four American teenagers and I stepped off a bus and into our new homes in cities nestled in the heart of China’s Sichuan province to start a six-week study of Chinese, we had been told that we were the brightest crayons in that year’s box of applicants, ready to study the official national language of China, Mandarin Chinese, known within China as “the common language.”

imag0979I could talk and ponder for hours about the experience that followed, an experience that simultaneously taught, pushed, and comforted me every day, but instead I will only tell you about one thing, a thing that was mentioned only in passing during the program’s extensive orientation process: the Sichuan provincial dialect.

Now, when I say Sichuan dialect, know that in China there are dialects within dialects, and that two people who grew up fifty miles apart within the same province do not necessarily understand each other, especially in the southeast where the dialects are notoriously complicated. People have rightly argued that many dialects can be considered separate languages within a Chinese language family.

Keeping that in mind, take the Sichuan dialect and add in teenage web slang, personal habits of speech, and a few dozen idioms. This is what our host families, friends, and pretty much everyone else spoke to each other every day, which meant we felt out of the loop just studying the standardized national Mandarin in the classroom. In addition, since many of the host families spoke dialect or heavily accented Mandarin directly to us, we struggled to communicate the little Chinese that we had a solid grasp on, not to mention adequately respond if a nice auntie gave us a beautiful toast completely in dialect while her faith in our understanding twinkled in her eyes.

The reality showed we were effectively studying Mandarin and dialect, and so dialect became like the ubiquitous pepper of Sichuan cuisine; present at every dinner table, handled differently by everyone. Sometimes we successfully bargained with it, sometimes we were laughable as we tried to speak it in a stilted accent to someone who knew it intuitively, and sometimes we completely gave up.

imag1015Dialect was another reminder that the world is a lot more complex than anyone likes to think. Historically, there had been no Mandarin, no internet to unify China linguistically, only vast expanses of geographic, cultural, and linguistic variation. I have seen a teenager code-switch from Mandarin to dialect to English, then tell me that she had just finished a masterwork of classically written Chinese literature. I have walked the tactile paths for the blind in a city with a vibrantly oral culture, and visited its school for the deaf and blind. I have watched national news subtitled with the widely understood written language. I have heard a Sichuan dialect speaker sing a song in Guangdong dialect from the bottom of their heart, and listened to an elderly man speak in dialect as thick as the summer heat.  

Let me end this field diary by saying that as a language student I wanted to understand everything and to be understood. I confess I also wished that the standard language and the local dialect were “mutually intelligible”.  But as a person, I grew to appreciate the space between understanding and not understanding, the history that silhouettes China’s linguistic complexity, the laughter and smiles that needed no translation, and of course the food devoured too quickly to ask its name.


13320630_10205228471149959_7287752061138801940_oJulia Bouzaher was born and raised in Northeast Ohio. She enjoys being outdoors,  watching Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and other television shows, tea, and bread. She has been happily studying languages since the sixth grade. She is a 2020 expected graduate who is looking to major in Environmental Science & Policy and is interested in languages, literature, economics, dark chocolate, government, cultural and landscape studies, and all things in between. Shout out to her big sib, Khulood!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

On the Tip of My Tongue

In order to illustrate my relationship with Portuguese as a Spanish speaker, I have developed a metaphor. Imagine Spanish and Portuguese were identical twins. You have been best friends with Spanish for many years, without ever having met their twin. You can anticipate Spanish’s every word; you recognize the rhythm of their voice, the lines of their palms, and the shape of their teeth. One day you are introduced to Portuguese. As they stand side-by-side with Spanish, you are able to decipher small differences between the two. Portuguese might have more moles on their left cheek, their laughter is huskier, and their hair shorter. But, from a distance, they are near identical. It is then that Spanish departs hastily, and you are left alone with Portuguese. You make the wrongful assumption that those physical similarities will and should be reflected in the contours of their personality, such as tastes in music or political leanings. But alas, you are mistaken and left with nothing to talk about. Silence permeates the room, while across the table from you perches the appearance of intense familiarity, an intimate outline. Upon opening your mouth, everything rapidly becomes foreign and stilted, each question and response lingering on the tip of the tongue.


img_2354The weight of the nuanced differences between these two, between these “twins,” fully occurred to me when I read the yellow table above in my Portuguese textbook, which illustrates how prepositions and definite articles in Portuguese are often orthographically combined. I was forced to reconsider my earlier inclinations, wherein I chalked Portuguese up to be nothing more than a bizarre-sounding, formalized dialect of Spanish, the gawkier twin (perhaps it is, but that’s aside the point). I was confronted with the wholeness of Portuguese’s individual identity, its structural identity. As such, I want to propose the perhaps unpopular notion that there exists no real “comfort zone” in language. Within the context of the metaphor, many friendships are deceptive in their intimacy. I am naïve to assume Spanish has never kept secrets from me, or that their existence is contingent upon my own. Regardless of your perceived familiarity with a language, Language as a larger theoretical entity is fluid and reluctant. They, languages, do not reveal themselves to you in their entirety, nor could they if they wanted to, because much like people, they are constantly in a state of evolution.

I have been forced to abandon the notion that I can simply speak Spanish with an altered “Portuguese-y” accent and get by. I mean, yes, most of the Portuguese professors also have in-depth knowledge of Spanish and can certainly understand me when I falter or rely on one to compensate for the other. What I mean to say is that I have been forced to abandon the notion that language is a simply a tool of convenience, that it yields itself to you, that it is a means. My stumbling in Portuguese has taught me that despite the academic and necessary practice of outlining linguistic similarities between languages, to classify linguistic families wherein perhaps some of its members are rendered “twins,” languages have a tendency of asserting their distinctiveness, an assertion that is uncomfortable for the learner. But, to deprive a language of this distinctiveness for simplicity’s sake is akin to depriving the twin at the other end of the table of their personhood.


img_0098(1)Sawnie Smith is currently a senior at Smith College. She originally hails from Dallas, Texas and is pursuing a major in Spanish, a minor in Philosophy, and a certificate in the Translation Studies Concentration. It is her eventual professional aspiration to become a linguist.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Welcome. To. My. Space.

“你爲什麽每天早上喝流程果汁? Why do you drink orange juice every day in the morning?” Xuan Han asked me. I stared back at her with a perplexed face.

“什麽?What?” I replied. She explained how in all the Hollywood films she’s watched, Americans always drank a glass of orange juice in the morning while reading the newspaper in the kitchen. I laughed and shed light on this question that had boggled her mind for years. I told her that not all Americans drink a glass of orange juice in the morning while reading the newspaper. To convince her, I asked the seven other American students in my program if they drank orange juice every day in the morning. They all shook their heads.

It was a typical Monday afternoon where we met up with our Taiwanese language partners for our weekly two hour language and cultural exchange meeting. Questions like these were fired back and forth between us, the American exchange students, and them, the local Taiwanese college students who applied to be our language partners.

While my Mandarin skills improved in the classroom, it was cultural exchanges, such as meetings with my language partner and interactions with local Taiwanese people outside of the classroom, that transformed my lens in approaching the world. As I explored the intersectionality of my Chinese-American, low-income, first-generation, and queer identities, I found myself falling in love with Taiwan because my immersion in that environment challenged me to deconstruct and reconstruct what it means to be human and to love. For the first time in a long time, I found my place in the world.

"Sunshine & Smiles at 白沙灣 | 墾丁, 臺灣 (White Sandy Bay | Kenting, Taiwan)""
Sunshine & Smiles at 白沙灣 | 墾丁, 臺灣 (White Sandy Bay | Kenting, Taiwan)

As a Chinese-American, I contemplated how I grew up in an individualistic American society in contrast to my home, where my Chinese immigrant parents raised me to value the collective whole. As a low-income, first-generation college student, I reflected on how blessed I felt to be able to not only be the first person in my family to go to college, but also be the first to study abroad. As a Smithie outside of the Smith bubble, I learned how to engage in dialogue with people who didn’t have the same radical, liberal views as me. As an international student for the first time, I empathized with international students back at Smith who constantly have to represent their entire countries and do conversion math, like converting from Celsius to Fahrenheit every day.

Studying abroad in Taiwan through a summer language intensive program for Mandarin was hands-down the best decision I made while at Smith. From the moment I stepped off the airplane, I felt at home. The pleasant rays of sunlight, cotton-shaped clouds, and the perfect blue sky of Taiwan welcomed me like a warm embrace from a close friend you haven’t seen in years.

Although I am no longer physically there, I bring Taiwan with me into every new space that I now enter. If we ever cross paths, I invite you and welcome you into my space.


croppedRegina Wu /伍嘉嫣 is a human bean who likes to connect with other human beans. While they are waiting for the day they have a stable adult life to comfortably take care of their future pug, they often contemplate the meaning of life at Paradise Pond. They hope to continue following life wherever it takes them (hopefully back to Taiwan soon).



Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather


I remember the exact moment I realised that I wasn’t cisgender. It was on my way back home in Germany, a couple of weeks before I was going to leave for Smith. I was just getting off the train and as I climbed up the stairs from the platform, I thought, “I am not a woman.”


I wasn’t and still am not able to understand what exactly that means, and I have since realised that figuring out my gender identity is a process that is likely to be never-ending. This is often frustrating and scary, but ultimately I hope that I will be able to see it as freeing. The pressure to conform doesn’t stop with stepping outside of the gender binary. Even as I came to identify as trans, I was irritated at myself: how could I say I wasn’t one gender or another, when gender is a social construct? What would make the gender I identified with any more real than the one I was assigned at birth? I’ve never subscribed to gender roles anyways, so on what basis do I even define gender?

Coming to terms with questions like these is especially difficult in a society that generally doubts your gender identity even exists. I was fortunate to enter Smith and find a place where I could think about gender in a different way than I could have in Germany. It might seem ironic that I would distance myself from being female while at a women’s college, but it turns out that when you take gender out of the equation, there is more freedom to it.* Sure enough, Smith is far from representative of  the rest of the United States (although I am not aware of any women’s colleges in Germany), but one part of the wider culture has been incredibly significant in my understanding of trans identity: the language.

While identifying as non-binary in Germany, the way I conceptualised it was to add a male alter ego to my established female identity. English, a language without grammatical gender that has the option of using they as a non-gendered singular pronoun (however frowned upon it might be stylistically, it is established), provided me with the resources to think and express myself outside of the gender binary. Our language shapes our thoughts and thus our worlds. A language without gendered pronouns, for example Turkish, would help us understand the world in yet another way.

Language is a fundamentally social phenomenon. It shapes our communities and they shape it. I understand now that while, yes, gender is a social construct, that doesn’t make us, as people living in society, free of it. As people who exist in relation to one another, the way we are perceived by others will always be a significant part of who we are. As an individual, I have no problem with my gender identity at this point; I just am who I am. It is when others perceive me in a certain way that does not conform to my self-image that the problems arise.

While transgender awareness is slowly growing when it comes to transgender women and men, most people are not aware that it is a spectrum, and even when non-binary is included, it is often as a third category in addition to the binary extremes. Defying gender roles and wanting to be recognised as non-binary/trans is a balancing act. Even though I know that neither activities, nor clothes, nor makeup, nor haircut have an inherent gender, presenting in a way that is socially construed as feminine will result in me being immediately read as female and erase my gender identity. It often feels that in order to disrupt this, I have to present in a way that is especially masculine, or even identify as a transman in order to not be assumed cis.

As long as we live in a society that upholds gender roles and the gender binary, not conforming to those will be a struggle. But even in this society we can find a community that supports us, in which we can discuss the issues and questions that arise out of this tension, and encourage each other to keep challenging the status quo.

Transition might be read as a noun, but for me it is a verb first and foremost. Life and all that comes with it is unfathomably complex, and there will always be more to discover and figure out. What stagnates will wither, and change is the only constant.

*I am aware that not everyone’s trans identity has been met with love and respect at Smith, but fortunately I have only come across encouragement.


nehls_2016-04-04-author-imageTL Nehls is originally from Hamburg, Germany and has lived in Chile and Northern Ireland before coming to Northampton. Asking them about historical linguistics, memes, or local geology will likely result in a lenghty, albeit enthusiastic, discussion, so be prepared. When not sitting in front of mostly empty word documents, they can be found performing theatre or folk music, or both.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Connection and Disconnect in Translation

My sensei, which means teacher or mentor in Japanese, has known me since I was four years old. While he understands English, he always writes to me in Japanese, in his exceptional calligraphy, difficult for me to read because it is a style I am not familiar with. When I was younger I delayed returning his letters because I was insecure and shy about my language ability. As I grew older I found it even harder to express myself and my ideas because I was not in full control of the language. This motivated me to develop my Japanese language skills when I entered college and began my linguistic transition.


In the winter of 2012, my sensei and I went to Tokyo Station, after the completion of its 5-year renovation to restore it to pre-World War II condition. Going with my sensei held deep meaning for me, because I have always admired the rich history of the station, with its mix of Western architecture and Japanese railway design. With its red brick and circular dome, the building itself symbolized my cultural and linguistic experience  learning English and Japanese. It was the West and the East, two opposing forces that would normally clash, coming together to create something unique and beautiful.

Although I grew up bilingual in America, and did not have the Japanese background the rest of my family had, our miscommunications were dismissed as cultural difference, and I felt my family often did not try to understand my ideas or me as an individual. “You’re American, you wouldn’t understand,” they would say, to end any conversation in which I struggled to follow or simply expressed disagreement. My elders would treat me as something foreign, despite the blood relation, and I wanted them to know who I was as a person, and to make a connection with me. Through my efforts to translate the complex thoughts I was having in English into Japanese, I came to understand that translation is not perfect. I realized that you cannot fully capture the meaning of a thought in the language in which it was not thought, and that oftentimes in instant translation, the challenge is to get as close as you can.

At the same time, I discovered aspects of my personality that could only be expressed in Japanese, and that words and concepts exist in the two languages that do not have equivalents in the other. I connected better with my family, but not in the way I originally thought I would. I know that there will always be a part of me that is foreign to them, as well as to others who identify solely as Japanese. And yet, I feel closer to them now, in a way that differs from the closeness I have with English speakers.

This combination of connection and disconnect is what fascinates me about translation. My racial and cultural background demanded linguistic and geographical transitions from a young age, but this personal linguistic transition lead me to realize my love for translation, a significant part of my identity. My hope is that through translation I can recreate the harmony of the Tokyo Station building that I visited with my sensei, and to act as a bridge between two cultures and languages.


gilligan_2016-04-05-author-imageVictoria Gilligan is a student of government and language, and is fascinated by the interplay between the two studies. Her academic interests include translation in all forms, but her projects have focused on the exploration of linguistic identity by biracial or bicultural people. Her nonacademic interests include rock climbing and all things outdoors. She is a 2016 expected graduate with a double major in Government and East Asian Languages and Literatures, and a Translation Studies Concentration.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Engaging with New Perspectives on Gender in Multilingual Space

During the fall semester of my year abroad in Hamburg, I took a class on the poetry of French Renaissance writer Louise Labé which involved readings in French and class time conducted in German. This made me nervous because I found it difficult to speak the two languages at once, but I hoped it would help me become more comfortable moving from one language to another. To be more confident switching between French and German, I would have to participate in class discussions in which both languages were spoken over the course of a single sentence. Though I had never taken a course conducted in two different foreign languages before, my experience in literature courses in French and German at Smith helped me to adapt to this new hybrid model.

Dompteuse, 1930. Hannah Höch. Photocollage.

As I navigated the course’s multiple languages, my command of German improved significantly more quickly, as it was the dominant language in the classroom. I gave an oral presentation on the introduction to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which I first read in English, then referred to the German translation in order to convey the concepts to my classmates. This constituted what was essentially my first engagement with theory in a literature course, although some of the basic concepts in Gender Trouble were familiar to me thanks to the open discourses about gender and sexuality at Smith. However, I was fairly surprised when most of my classmates had difficulty understanding the concepts I was discussing, such as the difference between gender identity and biological sex.

Part of the problem seemed to lie in the language itself—any vocabulary used to describe gender was either basic or borrowed from English. In German, Geschlecht means either gender or sex, unless you extend it to Geschlechtsidentität, which specifies gender identity. In a presentation for which I had to distinguish explicitly between gender and sex, I was advised simply to use the English terms as I explained the theory to my classmates in German. Explaining the different components of phallogocentrism (Phallogozentrismus), or the male-centered quality of language, resulted in more confusion. Having attended Smith for two years made me forget that not all or even very many universities encourage conversations about these issues the way Smith does. It surprised me, too, because we often assume that Europeans are much more progressive than Americans with regard to social and political issues. One might think that Germans in particular would have a more open view of gender based on the fact that their language includes a third, neutral grammatical gender. In our class discussions, however, it became clear to me that their engagement with the material began and ended with the theoretical.

This presentation was important to me as a linguistic and intellectual exercise, but was also personally meaningful in a way that didn’t seem to resonate with my classmates. While issues of gender identity have played a significant role in my own inner life and the lives of many of my friends at Smith, the concepts we discussed in this course seemed limited to the abstract for my classmates, who may have only been taking the course to fulfill a major requirement. In comparing discussions I’ve had in German with discussions in English on gender identity, it seems to me that English is a more inherently flexible language, particularly with regard to lexical invention and introduction of new words into everyday speech. This quality has made it easier to facilitate conversations about unique identities, pronoun usage, and other subjects for which a new vocabulary simply must be created.

In the end, it made me more grateful to return to Smith where I would be among like-minded classmates, but it reminded me, too, that there is much work to be done in other less welcoming spaces when I leave. Language certainly shapes the way we view the world, but I realized that that view might not always be more expansive simply because the grammar is. If I want to engage in deeper discussions of gender and sexuality in new cultural and linguistic environments, I’ll need to make the effort to search for the communities where these concepts are treated on a discursive level closer to my own.


lensing-sharp_2016-04-05-author-imageDinah Lensing-Sharp is currently a senior at Smith, enjoying the last few weeks of college with their friends. They are finishing up an honors thesis in Comparative Literature entitled “Sensational Internationals: Gender, Sexuality, and Foreignness in Ruth Landshoff-Yorck’s Die Vielen und der Eine,” which entails a partial translation of the novel as well as an interpretation of its themes informed by critical literary and queer theory. In Fall 2016, Dinah will begin studying for a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather