I recently read The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, an interesting novel by Ruiyan Xu about a Chinese man who loses his ability to speak Chinese after suffering brain damage in an accident. The main character, Li Jing, grew up in America and spoke nothing but English until the age of 10, when his family moved to Shanghai. After that he promptly forgot his English and learnt Mandarin as quickly as he could.
After the accident he finds that he can’t speak Mandarin at all and can only speak falteringly in English, a language which his father speaks, but his wife and son don’t, which makes their relationship very difficult. When he discovers that he’s lost his Mandarin, he refuses to speak at first, but with the help and encouragement of an American neurologist who specialises in bilingual aphasia* and who his family bring to Shanghai, he starts to dredge up more of his English, though his Mandarin remains locked in his head.
* Bilingual aphasia is a condition that affects one or more languages spoken by bilingual and multilingual people as a result of stroke or traumatic brain damage.
The American neurologist doesn’t speak any Mandarin, and finds life in Shanghai quite a struggle as she can’t understand or talk to the locals, or read anything. Inspite of this she finds ways to communicate. Her paitent can understand everything people say in Mandarin and can read Chinese, but can’t speak or write it, which is a huge source of frustration and embarassment for him.
The events in the novel parellel the authors life in some ways – she was born in Shanghai and her family moved to America when she was ten. At the time she spoke no English. When she went back to Shanghai for a short visit eight years later she could speak English fluently, but could no longer read or write Chinese and was not confident about speaking Mandarin, fearing making mistakes and not being understood.
Li Jing’s case sounds somewhat similar to language learners who focus mainly on reading and listening, and can understand the language quite well, but cannot speak or write it as well. This is how I tend to learn languages – concentrating on the listening and reading, but not practising my speaking and writing as much. I’m trying to change this and to spend more time practising actively producing my languages in speech and writing. One way I do this is by making videos – I plan to make some in the Celtic languages I’m working on. This will involve writing dialogues, recording them and putting together the videos.