I’ve been learning to translate classical Chinese for the past three years. When I share this with people, their faces range from shock to disbelief. I find myself spending the next 10 minutes explaining why and how I got there.
However, the reason is easy to understand. I study classical Chinese because I want to unlock knowledge. For years I’ve had a growing feeling of frustration. Every time I tried to understand certain philosophical concepts from Asia, I crashed into an impregnable wall, the Chinese language.
Reflecting back, I guess this is how some of my fellow Spaniards felt when trying to read something in English. I’m blessed by the foresight of my parents, which pushed for bilingual education for their kids. I can’t thank my parents enough. Being fluent in English opened doors I didn’t even know were locked.
While in university, I was constantly surprised by how much other students struggled with the language. Nonetheless, it wasn’t the language hurdles that shocked me but the motivations. For many, being able to read English was a barrier to passing their exams. But for me, it was never about the exams but the pure and unadulterated thirst for knowledge. There were no exciting books on computer science in Spanish. All the essential Spanish books were translations of seminal works in English.
While studying for my exams, I frequently got lost, roaming through the library shelves. And guess what? 99% of the books I picked were in English. Thinking of losing that capacity made me panic. So, the lack of interest by my peers always felt grievous. It was as if someone, given a chance to be able to see the world, would instead remain blind. Ok, fair enough; I guess Plato already answered that; still painful to experience, though.
Languages encode thought, but thought is also encased in language.
But knowing English wasn’t only about accessing and consuming knowledge. It was also a window into another culture (or, should I say, cultures). Languages encode thought, but thought is also encased in language. We are what we speak, and being fluent in a language allows you to step through the looking glass and into the philosophy of that culture.
There was a time, not long ago, when good education included learning multiple languages like Latin, Greek, French, German, or Hebrew. Yes, students complained, language departments were gutted, and the outcry of “Why would I need a dead language in my life” became the fighting leitmotif of the neo-libertarian warrior monks. And still, mere decades ago, knowing more than one language was deemed a fundamental tool. The Swiss army knife that allowed anyone to pry open primary sources.
As America’s Anglo culture (and the British Empire decades before) swept across the collective West, the doors to ancient knowledge stores began to collapse. And while I’ll acknowledge that not everyone needs to know five languages, the available (and preferred) option is to learn zero.
As I write these lines, we’re fast approaching a new low; the unlearning of our mother tongue by offshoring it to an Artificial Intelligence.
No wonder people frown when I tell them I’m learning to read, not just Chinese, but ancient at that. And still, it’s hard to explain the freedom, the ecstasy of understanding human knowledge two millennia old. But why would that be useful? In the words of our quintessential capitalist, the wise Charlie Munger, “This habit of committing far more time to learning and thinking than to doing is no accident.”
When you weaken our collective ability to think critically, chaos usually follows.
History is THE great teacher; learning from our past, enlightens the future. What does history teach us about today? That ignoring the past will take us down a dangerous path of violence, intolerance, anarchy, and misery. That if a human can take the shortcut, they’ll take it every single time. That there are shortcuts where you gain and those where you lose. And that when you weaken our collective ability to think critically, chaos usually follows.