Words around the world

Senior expresses herself in seven languages


Finn Nowacki

Senior Duh Zathang stands in front of a map of the world. In total, Zathang understands seven languages.

Amanda Zheng, Staff Writer

In her green skirt and white blouse, a middle school aged Duh Zathang stood alongside her 25 other classmates and began reciting her daily scriptures out loud. Over 8000 miles from her Indiana home, she was spending her fifth consecutive summer at No. 2 Basic Education High School, an elite Chinese school in Yangon, Myanmar. 

“My father had sent me to the language school in middle school to learn Burmese and Mandarin Chinese. Even though my family speaks it fluently, my dad thought it would be better for me to learn there, since Burmese is a difficult language to master,” Zathang said. “Even my dad still has difficulty with the language since the structure of it is so different from English. It’s unlike any other.”

Initially, Zathang’s father pushed her to learn the languages. Over time, Zathang’s passion for learning new languages and fostering her skills developed entirely on her own. 

“I do it because I think it’s super fun and benefits me in every way possible,” Zathang said. “I like being social and making new friends and learning languages is a way for me to make these connections in life. When I’m traveling, I also don’t want to use Google Translate, and I would rather learn that language and dedicate my time so I can get by.”

Zathang understands a total of seven languages– including three different dialects of Burmese, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Korean and English. 

She credits her knowledge of the languages to her family’s frequent moves.

“I was born in Yangon in Burma, and we moved to Shanghai, China, where I learned to speak Mandarin. From there, I picked up some Cantonese when we moved to Hong Kong, and afterwards, we moved to Delhi, India,” Zathang said. “I learned some Hindi there, but now I’ve forgotten everything. After that I moved to New York, then Seattle and finally Indiana, where I learned English.”

Zathang says learning the languages was no easy feat. To hone her language skills, she employed a variety of methods. 

“I would say I use ‘tough love’ to learn languages. Sometimes when I took notes in school, I would write the notes in Chinese characters just for me to push myself harder. Other times, I would try to create stories in a different language with a topic in mind and I would add different details and keep adding on and on to it until I mastered it. Once I did that, I would try to make it even harder,” Zathang said. “Watching movies and TV shows in different languages also helps. I also listen to music in those languages too because it doesn’t take much effort to listen, and just being around the language helps you so much with learning the language and its pronounciation.” 

Zathang believes her knowledge of several languages allows her to expand her means of self expression. 

“With learning a new language, it’s like having a new personality for me. I think differently in each language, which makes me more in sync with my feelings and helps me know how to express myself. From learning how to speak different languages, I am able to express myself in a different language than I can in English. When I’m mad I could be expressing myself in Korean, or if I’m happy, I could do a better job of expressing myself in Chinese,” Zathang said. “Expressing myself is a top priority for me honestly, and by learning different languages, you can express your feelings easily since you have so many languages to express yourself in, and they’re all different.”

Mastering a language for Zathang personally means being able to take notes in that specified language, as an indication that she has dedicated enough time to master it. 

Her family has played a significant part in her language learning journey. 

“It’s probably my environment that allows me to quickly adapt to the different languages we speak,” Zathang said. “One time, I was going to a wedding and we had my cousin and aunt in the car, and they all began speaking Burmese, then used English, and then Khuabung, Lai, and I heard some Chinese in there. I was like ‘Oh my gosh’ this is such a multilingual family and thought it was so funny.” 

In the future, Zathang hopes to learn French or relearn Hindi.

She is still continuing to perfect her language speaking skills but is satisfied with what she’s managed to learn. 

“Honestly, there is nothing about it that I don’t enjoy. I have fun in the process and it’s very satisfying for me to feel myself pick up on the languages,” Zathang said. “Sometimes I unconsciously say something in a different language and won’t even notice until a while later.”