Language "block" on aesthetic grounds

Prof Arguelles’ website contains a very interesting biographical account of his language learning experiences. However, the following remarks (coming from a polyglot) seem rather surprising:

“…having been asked to teach and design a “Far Eastern Consciousness” great books course at the small liberal arts college where I was teaching, I felt it incumbent upon myself to visit the East Asian art museum. There I saw a monumental stone carved with very clear Chinese characters. Now, my knowledge of that fascinating writing system does require constant practice in order to stay active, and after a lapse of five years, I was in no position to understand them. Nonetheless, I “read” the stone, character by character, no longer knowing what most of them meant, but knowing nonetheless that I used to know them. This experience plunged me suddenly back into the study and practice of writing characters, and, sometime thereafter, when I discovered that Shadowing Chinese no longer gave me a headache, into a full-scale study of the language […]”

“…In 2009, one of my main motives for taking my current position in Singapore was the expectation that living in a Sino speaking realm would bring the language to life. It has not worked out at all the way I had imagined. It seems that Mandarin is only meaningful to me as long as it is remote and exotic. When I first arrived, hearing it spoken as an everyday vehicle around me actually made me actively not want to know it…”

Remember, this is Prof Arguelles talking - a guy who is almost fanatical about learning foreign languages. And here he is living in an environment where Mandarin is spoken around him, yet he actively does NOT want to know it!

Perhaps the key to this can be found in his earlier comment about the language once having given him a “headache”? It seems he has some kind of strong aesthetic aversion to the sound of this language?

I’m wondering whether this kind of aesthetic “block” can be a serious problem for other learners too?

Obviously it is an entirely subjective and personal thing: I’m 100% certain there is nothing intrinsically “bad” about the sound of Mandarin. (Personally I find it a very attractive sounding language. Only the other day I was fondly examining my Mandarin resources - Assimil vol. I&II, and Linguaphone’s epic 1970s course…but I digress!)

Could this kind of psychological or aesthetic barrier to a particular target language be one of the most dangerous enemies to language learners, I wonder?

(For me, the problem child would be Swedish: I like the structure of the language a lot, but I’m not at all keen on the way it sounds!)

When I hear Vietnamese, I feel very uncomfortable, almost “afraid” by the language.
When I hear Cantonese, I want to vomit. Literally.

I wouldn’t want to learn a language that sounds horrible to my ears UNLESS it was a very important one that I needed to know. Having said that, I have yet to hear a horrible language. All of them have their own special beauty to me. : )

@Elric: “…I wouldn’t want to learn a language that sounds horrible to my ears UNLESS it was a very important one that I needed to know.”

It’s an interesting question - would Prof Arguelles have been able to overcome his “Mandarin-headache” if he had been in a position where he really needed to learn it…?

I’m guessing he probably would. But according to the passages from his website I quoted above he really seems to have a pretty strong “block” for this language!

And he’s not alone. Juju says: “…when I hear Cantonese, I want to vomit. Literally.”

That’s a very very strong aversion! :-0

@ Jay_B : This is the truth !

When I went to Hong-Kong, I watched TV and listened to the radio in my room : I literally felt sick right away !
Even now, when I listen to the Cantonese radio via the Internet, I have the same feeling.

I can not bear how Cantonese and Vietnamese sound, as I can not bear how Italian and Finnish are written (I really really really don’t like the double consonants of these 2 languages).

Why do I react like this ? No idea…

Not everyone who studies languages is interested in speaking them or speaking with other people. Some people just want to be able to read or translate languages. Others just want to watch TV or movies or they are only interested in the grammar and unique features of the language(s) or the different ways people think. For these people, the language is a science rather than a vehicle for communication or interaction with a culture.

I kinda disagree polyglot2, I learn languages to gain access to different cultures, but I’m not too worried about speaking with other people. For me, languages are both a science and a vehicle for communication and interaction with a culture, and I still work hard to learn how to speak, even if I’ll never actually speak to anyone.

Strange. I find every language attractive once I get into it. I enjoy speaking Mandarin and Cantonese and when surrounded by it am only motivated more.

Do some folks in the world dislike English for similar aesthetic reasons?

I’ve met some people who dislike the sound of English. I also met a lot of people who dislike languages that they were forced to take in school (English throughout the world, Spanish in the US, French in England, etc), but I have had the same experience that Steve has had with this, in that once I started a language that I previously thought to be unpleasant, I find that it can be quite beautiful, elegant, melodic, etc, depending on the speaker and the situation.

@djc463: “…I have had the same experience that Steve has had with this, in that once I started a language that I previously thought to be unpleasant, I find that it can be quite beautiful, elegant, melodic, etc, depending on the speaker and the situation.”

You know, I think this kind of initial dislike that some people have towards a particular language may be something slightly different? In the case of Prof Arguelles and Mandarin (as decribed in his own account, from which I have quoted above) it would seem that he really has some kind of strong ‘allergic’ reaction to it?

Juju clearly has the same ultra-strong reaction against Cantonese.

For my own part, I find it very hard to comprehend why anyone would have an aversion to spoken Mandarin! Whenever I hear it, I always find that it has a very pleasing sound. (But this is evidently a very personal and subjective thing, I guess.)

There is a problem in Jay_B’s original post – equating spoken Mandarin with a Singaporean flavour with “spoken Mandarin”. I believe if the Professor had landed elsewhere rather than this particular “Sino speaking realm”, his experience would have been different.

When I was an international student in the United States, a Singaporean student liked to approach me. Like many from well-to-do Singaporean families, he spoke fluent Mandarin and English, but with a very pronounced Singaporean flavour in both languages (it seems to be more rhythm related, the heavy chopping sort), which I have since found in other Singaporeans in broadcast media. Every time he spoke, I felt kind of bombarded (by sounds). The thing is before and after him I had and have met a couple Singaporeans who don’t speak like that (speak softer). Come to think of it, these are first or second generation Chinese Singaporeans with more immediate ties to China or Taiwan.


That’s very interesting - I didn’t know that Singapore-Mandarin had such a strong and distinct accent.

As foreigners we tend to concentrate on the Beijing accent. At any rate, I’m pretty sure that the audio content for all of the Mandarin resources I have (Assimil, Linguaphone and TY) are all recorded in a Beijing accent. I personally think this is a very nice sound.

Now that you mention it, I guess there must be many other strong regional accents throughout China and the wider Chinese speaking world?

Well, I’m “learning” korean and I live in korea. Ever since moving here, I have a HUGE learning block. Although, It has nothing to do with the aesthetic of the language in my case… I actually like the way korean sounds… However, Even though I NEED to/should learn it and I actually do want to learn it theres something DEEP down inside me thats preventing me from learning it… Don’t know what it is yet. =(. Definitely not a good Feeling to have and Makes me feel quite useless actually. I’m starting to think that sometimes even though you WANT or have the desire and motivation to learn and you put in ALOT ALOT ALOT of time into it ( years in my case) the results aren’t always good… Theres something more to it and I cant quite put my finger on it in my case… driving me nuts…

“Vietnamese is great. I love it!”

Even like this, I can’t stand these 2 languages…