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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Human linguist

I mentioned before that in addition to my academic research in theoretical linguistics, I am also interested in applied linguistics as I have been doing professional interpreting and language teaching for several years. One of my most enjoyable teaching experiences has got to be my time at the Manchester International Society (IntSoc) where I taught Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese) and Spanish at various levels ranging from beginners to advanced. For those of you who do not know, IntSoc is situated on Oxford Road in Manchester right next to KroBar opposite our Student Union, and it is closely affiliated with the University of Manchester as it regularly organizes social and academic events for students at Manchester including those at MMU and Salford. I met loads of people there who came from all around the world, and making their acquaintance greatly enhanced my linguistic and cultural education. Many people at IntSoc knew that I was a language teacher of Chinese (Cantonese/Mandarin) and Spanish and a regularly participant in several other language courses too, namely Italian, Portuguese, Japanese and Korean. Many of them were surprised that an Asian guy could speak several Romance languages (in addition to English), though there were many remarkable linguists in IntSoc, which is why I loved going there so much and contribute to their promotion of foreign languages and culture. I remember one girl who was ethnically Japanese but born and bred in Brazil. She spoke little Japanese and Brazilian Portuguese was firmly her native tongue. As I was learning Portuguese, I was keen to practise it with native speakers so we often hanged out and conversed in Portuguese (I am grateful to her for pardoning my so-so Portuguese and for helping me by correcting my many grammatical mistakes). There was one conversation which was particularly interesting: she saw me coming out of my Chinese class where I was bidding farewell to my students, and as I was exiting, I spoke Spanish with some Spanish speakers who were coming in. She was amazed by my code-switching and asked me what other languages I knew beside Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, English. I mentioned to her several other languages and she was even more astounded. She asked me what I was (literally in Portuguese: ‘o que você é?’), implying what nationality I had, and I distinctly remember saying to her, ‘I am a human being. I may be ethnically Chinese, but I have been around the world for a fairly long time and the more places I visit, the more I appreciate cultural diversity as well as human universality. I am not confined to one place and I consider myself first and foremost a human being.’ I loved saying that. I remember feeling the flush all around me as I declared to be a ‘human being’, which was pretty exhilarating. It still gives me chills saying, ‘I am a human being!’, as inspired by the character of John Merrick in ‘The Elephant Man’. This is one of many reasons why I love studying languages, since I love discovering the differences between human languages as well as the common universals that underlie them (I am also fascinated by artificial languages, but that’s for another time). I have been around the world long to say that I prefer to be classified as a ‘human being’ than to be tied to just one place, though I am very aware of my cultural origins. And as a linguist, I would like to consider myself a ‘human linguist’ above all else, since in addition to recognising the many many differences that exist between us and separate us in numerous distinct communities, it is important to see the many many similarities that are shared between us all and bind us together as human beings. In the words of John Merrick in ‘The Elephant Man’, ‘I am a human being!’ #humanlinguist

PS: John Hurt was a brilliant actor, and his performance as the one and only John Merrick in David Lynch’s ‘The Elephant Man’ is a performance of a lifetime, along with many many other iconic roles. RIP, maestro. We shall never forget you.

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