Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Benefit of Travel & My History With Languages

What are my experiences with language-learning? It's kind of a long story.

As the child of people who were required to travel for work, I found myself exposed to more than a handful of cultures growing up.

My first language was German. I spoke English at home, but this dominant language would soon overpower (and erase) my German as my family moved on to other places. Japanese was the first language I "studied" in school. Elementary school. The language lessons were part of a required culture class that everyone at my school took part in. There was one just like it at my next location, but instead of learning Japanese, I learned Turkish.

So ends the list of languages I didn't take too seriously while learning (really, there were just two: Japanese and Turkish). Although, I enjoyed those culture classes, I think I had been passively taking in the language. "Oh, if I happen to forever remember the word for cow, I guess that'll be alright."

By the time high school rolled around, I could only remember small things like Japanese numbers and greetings, and the Turkish word for beautiful (which will forever be ingrained in my mind). Now, I was being given the task of choosing a foreign language to study in order to graduate.  My choices were French, German, and Spanish.

Call me stupid for not choosing Spanish. I mean, really, I was living in Texas, so it shouldn't have been a hard choice. ... But hear me out: Spanish was a very competitive class to get into. EVERYONE wanted to take that class. I would later find out that the classes were so big that actually learning things suffered.

Call me an idiot for not picking German. To this day, I'm not quite sure why I didn't choose German. I mean, I could've regained all my childhood skills! The smarts to be able to pronounce words would already be programed in my head, just waiting to be reactivated! Yeah... I still have no answer to give you. I chose something entirely different.

French. What was my reason for choosing French? I think I was a little intrigued by it. It was new and I was curious. I didn't know what to expect from the class. I took two years of French in high school, and one semester at university. It wasn't until the lessons dove deeper into past-tense conjugation that I began to feel the need to give up or take a break.

In my last year of university, I took Japanese. Throughout my higher education, I had been teaching myself Japanese (mostly the writing system). However, I felt that taking an official class would benefit most, so I finally signed up for Beginner 1. It was easy, fun, and I was sad that I couldn't move on to the next class (stupid need to graduate!).

Oh, I also signed up for a free Turkish class around that time. The class was once a week, though, and to be honest, it got pretty difficult for that reason. I think trying to cram tons of information into my head once a week while hoping to remember it all a week later was a little too much. Plus, I might've not had enough enthusiasm to study it in the first place.

Korean... learning Korean... that experience remains the the most different of all so far. There was no prior interest. There was no chance to passively learn it. There was no grade for it; it wasn't a prerequisite. It certainly wasn't a first or dominant language in my life. With Korea, I actively chose to learn it. Yes, I would be going to live in Korea for a while, but prior to going, I didn't know how much I would need to use the language. I didn't know if I should study before or after arriving (though I chose to study beforehand).

When I arrived in Korea, it was all on me to continue studying, to practice with the locals, to get better. There was the choice to stop learning. Many people got by with knowing as few words as possible. I didn't think that was a good idea. It was my first language immersion experience (besides learning German). I decided not to waste it.

These days, I'm taking a Korean class (not for credit, or a grade), as well as studying Japanese and practicing speaking at Conversation Club. Actually, I'm really thankful for the Conversation Club. It's just like LanguageCast and I was actually thinking that I might start one if there wasn't any available in my area. I'm glad there already is one, seeing as I'm a bit shy at leading things.

All being said, I think that no matter how far you go from your starting point, traveling has awesome benefits. If you feel brave enough to cross borders (land or water), chances are that you'll get a taste of a new language. Take it all in. You don't need to walk away with a fluency, and you're not necessarily required to remember all those new words you learned. Still, learning/understanding the language will broaden your scope of that new culture. I don't think anyone has anything to lose by learning another language.

Even though I've started learning so many languages, they haven't hindered me in any way. For instance, I don't get excluded from something because I can write in French. No one has made fun of me for counting in Spanish (Yes, it's not on the list above, but by the power of Sesame Street, I can count in Spanish). If language finds you, give it a chance, get to know it, and if possible, accept it with open arms.


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