Why and how I learned seven languages (and am learning two more!)

High School language learning
By Ryohei

English and Japanese: Growing up bilingual but also investing time and effort

The first two languages I learned had no reason to be learned other than geographic, structural factors — I spoke Japanese at home and English at school. Though there have been numerous studies on the inherent benefits of multilingual environments for language learning abilities later in life, this cannot be the only reason for my penchant for language learning; my sister, although she had the disadvantage of being slightly younger before our family left Japan, is “only” bilingual and hasn’t worked on maintaining her Japanese as much as I have. It’s actually only recently in my life that I’ve put in as much effort into brushing up my Japanese knowledge especially in reading and writing — interestingly, it is through my formal French education that I’ve acquired general frameworks for learning any language.

French: formal education and deconstructing the idea of language and love

I started learning French in sixth grade at my public school. The program in itself was probably largely comparable to most foreign language curricula, as in it wasn’t particularly remarkable or fancy. Memorizing verb forms, grammar rules, vocabulary and parts of speech, and understanding tenses and grammatical moods gave me the tools and lexicon necessary to objectively describe French. This revealed its underlying construction and logic to me, and therefore rendered French systematically comparable to other languages. I could see how English used the “present continuous” where French used simply the “present,” or how English verb conjugations were much simpler than French ones. 

My understanding of English became more profound as a result, and gave me an awareness of its structure that native speakers do not normally acquire for their own language(s), simply because it’s usually socially unnecessary. But why did I continue and look forward to class? Because I loved the sounds and the orality of the language, which to me resembled music. More than merely acquiring a language, I was immersed in a world in a different language, with books that looked different, my mouth moving differently, people that had different habits, different architecture and histories, food and art. Increasingly, I learned to love French, and there was no question of lack of motivation.

German: Schubert, philosophy, and living in a language

I formally learned German while spending my Junior year of college in Paris. My real motivation was a closeness I felt to the music of Franz Schubert, and a desire to understand the words — the putatively professional reason was because I was reading a lot of German philosophers and wasn’t satisfied with having access only to the translations. This was also the first time I learned a language mediated through another acquired language, since we spoke French in class when we weren’t speaking German. Because I had spent so much time with French, this was more of a fun challenge than a frustration. If you’re at a certain level in foreign language X, it can be an enlightening experience to read through a textbook for language Y written in language X. I ultimately became interested in spending more time in a German-speaking city and lived in Berlin for six weeks while continuing self-study, cementing the relationship between travel and language learning for me.

Italian, Spanish, Portuguese: travel and film, or, sisterly languages

I learned these languages in one way or another through a combination of my love for cinema and art history, and having multiple opportunities for extended stays in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. These are my “love languages,” and sometimes I wish I spoke them better than I can speak French, though it is also only because of their linguistic similarity that I could acquire them through informal self-study and immersion. When you are interested in one language, however, it’s always enlightening to learn more about its historical manifestations, as well as its relations to other modern (or ancient) languages. I didn’t consciously make the choice of studying French in order to have access to other Romance languages (I haven’t forgotten Romanian or the lesser-spoken languages, I simply haven’t studied them yet!), but the result was that I found it very easy to adapt my grammar and vocabulary to other idioms.

In addition to being grammatically similar, the advantage of learning Spanish and Portuguese in particular is that they are widely spoken and, alongside English and French, are among the top 10 most spoken languages in our world today (standard German and Japanese make the top 15 list). I have much, much more to say about the concept of the “utility” of languages and the motivation for learning one language over another, but I’ll save that for a later post.

Vietnamese and Classical Chinese: new horizons, old memories

Lastly, these are the languages I have started learning just over a year ago, and are a complete departure from what I know, except that I have a repository of Sino-Japanese vocabulary (and Chinese characters) which helps me with both languages. Without delving too deeply into the challenges of tonality and complex vowel systems, what has been fascinating for me is to learn a modern language and an ancient language at the same time (though Classical Chinese, like Latin, was used as a literary and juridical language until the twentieth century); the ways of expressing ideas is rather different, and yet the mono- or bi-syllabic lexicon is very similar. My not-so-hidden plan is, in the near future, to also learn Mandarin and Korean, the former facilitated grammatically by Classical Chinese and the latter by Japanese.

Learning a morphologically post-colonial language like Vietnamese is also an exercise in historical linguistics, understanding the social facts that led to its Latinization, learning the ways mass literacy education was organized, and, ultimately, is a testimony to why I learn languages: because it is not simply about the transactional acquisition of a means of expression. Languages constitute an unbelievably rich, nourishing path to perceiving other ways of being and ways of remembering.

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