My Journey through Language(s)

[CN: super long post. Seriously, take a bathroom break and get some coffee before you start reading. Also discussion of financial privilege and education]

When I was in middle school, I was in a gifted program. My family had made the move a few years earlier from Durham, NC to Springfield, MO, and I had been forced to go from a very liberal private school to a very conservative public school, and I didn’t handle the transition well. The public school tried moving me up a grade, since I was ahead of most of my class, but the other students at my new middle school picked on me mercilessly, until my parents pulled me out and tried to home school me, which also failed (mostly because I’m a very stubborn person and my parents were both working full-time and thus couldn’t force me to work). So as a last resort, I was placed in a program at a local high school, where middle school gifted students were given the chance to take high school classes and challenge themselves. For the most part, it worked pretty well. The teacher was kind but no-nonsense, the other kids and I understood each other better than we had the other kids our age. Most of the high school kids viewed us as an amusing curiosity, but didn’t bother us. But one of my favorite things about those two years was learning Latin.

Like most American students, I hadn’t had any real language education before that time. I vaguely remember a couple weeks of Spanish instruction in elementary school, and my liberal private school had focused a lot on being multicultural, so I was somewhat familiar with other cultures and knew a few words here and there, but Latin was my first introduction to learning a second language. And I loved it. Not the grammar stuff, really, but I loved how our teacher made this ancient civilization come to life, I loved reading the mythology, and I loved making connections between Latin words and English words. There was a particular game I remember us playing, where the teacher would write a Latin word on the board, and we would have to list as many English words from that root as possible. Us middle schoolers usually lost because our vocabulary wasn’t as big as the high schoolers, but it was still really fun, I remember it to this day.

When it came time for me to start high school, my family moved back to NC, this time to Chapel Hill, and I started high school there. This was a blessing, as CHHS was a well-funded public school with a lot of academic achievement and a great music program. The only downside was when I started Latin 3 that year, the teacher was awful. She had no personality whatsoever, she never played any games in class, just droned at us about conjugation and declension and I often found myself falling asleep or just utterly bored for the duration of her class. I stopped doing my homework, my mom found me a tutor (who was a really fun and interesting guy) but the damage had been done, I’d decided that I hated Latin, and being my usual stubborn self, I refused to do anything for my tutor or for my class. I finished the year with a C or D (I don’t remember) and when it was time to choose my classes for the next year, I was surprised and pleased to learn that CHHS was going to offer Japanese 1. I’d become an anime fan in my last year of middle school (watching Dragonball Z dubbed on TV), and upon starting high school and meeting some other anime fans, I’d discovered even more and become thoroughly immersed in the anime fandom. So the opportunity to learn Japanese was incredibly appealing to me, and although my mother warned against it, I signed up for the class.

CHHS had a strict policy at the time that a student had to take 3 consecutive years of the same language to graduate, and there were some struggles getting all 3 of my Japanese years. For one thing, the first year my class was mostly seniors, who were taking it simply for a fun filler, as they’d fulfilled their requirement already. For another, the teacher was fired after that year, for reasons unknown, so the following year they almost canceled the class, until I and the 2 or 3 other people who needed our 3 years made a fuss. The second year we had a woman who spoke almost no English and wasn’t a trained teacher for the first few months, then her replacement came and had to try to bring us up to speed, with varying success (I was also dealing with my parents going through a divorce at the time, so I had other things on my mind). Finally in the 3rd year, there were only 2 of us left, so they combined us with the Japanese 2 class and we were largely ignored or given similar work to them. But despite all the setbacks, I have a lot of fond memories of learning about the Japanese language and culture.

When I graduated from high school, I was all set to start a degree in classical singing. For my degree, I was required to take two semesters each of French and German (my university didn’t offer Italian, or that would’ve been required as well). In addition, we were required to translate every piece we sang word-for-word, even if it was in a language we hadn’t taken, so we would know exactly what we were singing. I took French first, with an awful teacher who made me dislike the language and almost failed. I re-took it the following year, with a different teacher who was lovely, so that ended well. Then I started German, and found it fascinating. My teacher was a Jamaican German, the son of white Germans who had fled to Jamaica during World War II, and he had the most interesting accent, a mix of German and Jamaican. After two semesters, I was really interested in the language, and managed to convince my parents to pay for me to do the summer study abroad program, which would condense two more semesters of German into a single summer, and allow me to go to a higher level the following year, as well as spending a month traveling around Germany. When I got to Germany, I fell in love. Everything about it spoke to me, in ways that few places had before. Everywhere I went there was beauty and life and history that breathed and spoke, and I ached with longing to stay there. When I got back, I had been changed in ways I didn’t fully realize.

Unfortunately, the condensed summer session had not been as intensive as promised, and when I started with the third level of German in the Fall, I was utterly lost. And it wasn’t just me, pretty much my entire study abroad group was in dire straits, and we fumbled through the rest of the semester with our teacher getting more and more frustrated with us. When I tried to take the following class, I failed it because it was simply too hard. Although I’d been strongly considering a minor in German after the summer study abroad, I ended up dropping that idea, as it was already the end of my 4th year and I only had one more semester to go before I was done. I had terrible senioritis and I just wanted to finish my degree and leave.

It was many years before I even thought about German again. Even though I’d loved the study abroad and still had a fondness for German, I was drifting in a post-bachelor’s haze of shitty jobs, adjusting to a new city (I’d foolishly moved to Cincinnati, OH, leaving all my family and support systems behind), trying to collect myself enough to apply to graduate schools again (as I’d failed to get into any of my choices the first time I applied). My life was going nowhere, and I was miserable, until I was given a financial gift from a family member that was contingent on my going back to school. The catch was that music wasn’t really an option, and although I still clung to the idea that I wanted to be an opera singer, I’d become more pragmatic after several years of real-life experience and getting to know myself better. While discussing my dilemma with some friends on an online forum, one of them mentioned that she was working on getting a certificate of translation for French (a non-degree program, but through an accredited university). I said “well, I did take a bunch of German several years ago…” and it was like a light bulb came on. I remembered the joy I’d felt in Germany, and I’d already given some serious thought to moving there (with only a music degree, two cats, and no savings, it would’ve been pretty hard), and I’d always liked writing and languages, so it seemed like a perfect fit. I quit my job, went to Berlin for a two-month intensive program to get my German back into the shape it’d been in before (with my family’s financial help), and when I got back I did a semester at my current school as a non-degree-seeking student, getting to know the professors and department so when it came time for me to submit my application, they knew me and were happy to admit me.

The first year of the program was studying abroad in Salzburg, which was a delightful experience, although definitely different from my previous study abroad experiences (Austria is a different country from Germany, after all). The second year, which is drawing to a close, has been back in the states, where I’ve been teaching beginning German to undergrads and working on my master’s project (a translation of a set of travel essays). As I gear up to graduate, it’s interesting to look back on my journey thus far.

I love language and languages. I love writing, and reading. I love translating, although it’s still a challenge (my German is intermediate advanced level, which means I can communicate fluently with minimal problems, but the more complex nuances still escape me). I love the little ways languages differ, and are similar. I love the history of languages. For instance, in Japanese, they use the word アルバイト (arubaito) to mean a part-time job. This comes from the German word Arbeit, which means job or work. This is a direct result of the German influence on Japanese culture during World War II. Learning things like that thrill me to my core. I love seeing the ways language and culture interact and change each other. I love watching culture and language evolve. I love languages.

I’m grateful for all the languages I’ve studied, too. Last semester I took a Czech workshop because I wanted to know what it was like (answer: super hard). This semester I’m taking Japanese 101 as a review, because I miss Japanese and I think it’d be a great third language once I move to Germany (they still do a lot of business with Japan). Latin gave me a solid basis in conjugation and declination. Japanese taught me not to be afraid of different writing systems (although Chinese is still a little intimidating, I think I could learn Arabic or Russian) and how different languages from different families can be. German taught me a lot about my own native language, and how European culture affects American culture. While I doubt I’ll become fluent in more than three or maybe four languages, I still love languages, and I love that I’ve had a chance to study so many of them.

I just wish that language teaching and learning were considered more important in the American educational system. You can’t really understand another culture on a deeper level until you learn your language, and that cultural understanding is an extremely important part of connecting to another person, another country, another region. To really foster peace in our world, first we need to understand each other.

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3 thoughts on “My Journey through Language(s)

  1. Thank you for this. I relate to it so much, but would have had trouble articulating it myself. I’ve been interested in foreign languages for as long as I can remember. I studied German for four years at high school because it was the first language I had a chance to learn, and did a one-year Certificate course in Japanese just for something to do when my (non-linguistic) Bachelor degree wasn’t getting me anywhere.

    I’ve (very slowly) studied Japanese on my own ever since, whilst dabbling in other languages occasionally via “Teach Yourself” books. But I didn’t really find a self-learning method that worked for me until I got a smartphone. First Obenkyo made a tremendous difference in my Japanese – it even has a feature that tests your kanji writing. And then Duolingo turned up and suddenly I can read newspaper articles in Spanish, French and Catalan (all while thinking about what to start learning next).

    I love what you said about the similarities and differences between languages/families/writing systems, and about making connections between words. That little thrill of pattern recognition is like a drug to me.

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    1. Thank you! ❤ I also love false cognates, even if they can be confusing sometimes. I showed my German 101 students this video this week, talking about things Germans say in English because they translated a German phrase directly. I actually didn't know some of them. She makes it a little infantalizing (calling these Germanisms "cute" doesn't sit well with me) but it's otherwise a good video. https://youtu.be/SkP-swtAt9Y

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      1. Awesome ta. (I don’t often watch videos that have sound, but here I am stuck at home with the flu or whatever, so I managed :p ). I’m sure we make similar mistranslations ourselves when trying to speak in other languages. I remember a fellow student in high school literally translating “That’s not on” as “Das is nicht an”, and the teacher explaining it made no sense in German. Personally I like the way some German-speakers pronounce ‘finger’ without the hard ‘g’. Because it’s perfectly logical if you’ve learnt words like ‘singer’ or ‘winger’. English must be really frustrating to learn as a second language.

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