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As someone who is bilingual, I find it interesting how language is so steeped in the culture it belongs to. For example, there are phrases and words in specific languages that become lost in translation in another language.

Growing up, I often found it difficult to translate certain English words to my family in Cantonese, and vice versa. For example, there is a phrase in Cantonese “ga yao” which directly translates to “add oil.” It’s an expression to give someone encouragement or support, but there is no direct English translation for this specific phrase. I’ve also found that while some languages may have multiple words to express one feeling split into different layers, another language may have only one word to describe it.

In one of my favorite books “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong, language is absolutely central to Vuong’s storytelling, from the way he analyzes its structure to the way his culture helps shape the way he expresses it. Vuong also talks about how, in Vietnamese, they rarely say “I love you,” and when they do, it’s in English. This is something that I can relate to, finding it easier to say “I love you” to my mom in English rather than in her native tongue Cantonese.

I’ve found the difference isn’t merely in language because different cultures also express love and emotions in different ways. In many Asian cultures, love and affection aren’t necessarily expressed by saying “I love you” but oftentimes through actions, whether through food or shared presence. In a way, then, that emotion is expressed in another language: pronounced through actions and service instead of words.

I’ve found that language also has the ability to influence our worldview. Knowing two languages has helped me see the world and understand situations from different perspectives. Thus, exposing yourself to a different language is more than just translating what you say: it can help you look at the world from a different angle.

Kelly Zhao

UC Berkeley '23

Kelly is a junior at UC Berkeley studying Economics with a minor in Journalism. In her free time, you can usually find her bingeing shows on Netflix, burying her nose in a book, eating yummy food, or daydreaming about traveling.
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