Confessions of the Linguistically Promiscuous

I read a post by Jake called “Why Chinese?” following a meme started by Greg where you explain why you’re learning Chinese.  Due mostly to my enormous vanity, I’ve decided to share my own “Why Chinese” story.  Alert the media.

Why Chinese?

I started Chinese in 2006.  I remember the moment I made the decision… I was bored with myself, bored with my life.  At the time I was driving down the street and wondering, “is this all there is to adult life?”  I realized I had gone four years without studying a language, and I realized, no wonder I didn’t feel like myself.

So I decided to start a new language.  Why Chinese?  For a few reasons;

  • Mandarin was the next “it” language; everybody was filled with fear and excitement about China.
  • My friend Nick had up and moved to Shanghai, and I was fascinated by the thought of it.
  • I wanted to learn an Asian language, or at least a non Indo-European one (and I had gone as far as I was going to go in Tagalog).
  • I kind of wanted to test the hypothesis that any human language is acquire-able, and Mandarin was thought of as one of the craziest.
  • I like Chinese food.

So I signed up for the summer intensive course and loved it.  Toward the end of the course, I was driving down Rainier, wondering if I was serious enough to interrupt my teaching career to study Mandarin… when I saw a red hen on the sidewalk.  I took it as a sign, and managed to enroll in that program in Hangzhou in the summer of 2007.  The rest is history.

Living in Shanghai was hard, and I’m disappointed I didn’t learn more when I was there.  Honestly, I was living and breathing work, and I didn’t have time or energy to get serious about my Mandarin.  Of course I picked up a lot on the way.  This summer I’m going to Taiwan; I’m going to try to “go native.”  We’ll see… I’ve got a few friends in Taipei who might offer me a distraction once in a while.

In the spirit of my Taiwan trip, I’ve taught myself the zhuyin fuhao, and set my Skritter to both simplified and traditional characters.  I realize now I should have done that long ago.  At first, the traditional characters seemed laugh-out-loud complicated, but now I’m starting to get into it.

Of course, Chinese isn’t the only language I’ve studied….

Why French?

In high school, when it was time to pick a language for our foreign language requirement, my best friend Shawn of the Bread said we should take French, because women think French is sexy sounding.  So I dutifully signed up for French, and on the first day of class, I wondered where Shawn of the Bread was… he had changed his mind and signed up for Japanese, which was the new “it” language of the time.

I was a little disappointed, but I thought since I was in the class, I might as well learn it.  This was the difference between me and a lot of my classmates (and now, my students); I decided I was going to learn to speak the language, because what’s the point in not learning?  Why would you take a language and not learn it?

Why Spanish?

If left to my own devices, I would not have taken French.  I totally would have taken Spanish, because I liked how it sounded.  Also, I have a Spanish last name, so why not?  Spanish was the first class I registered for at the UW, along with a French class and a required writing class in the English department.  I continued to study Spanish for all four years of college.  I got pretty good at it, and passed myself off as a Spanish speaker, even though I was far from it.  My fluency really started when I was given a teaching position; that’s when I started speaking out loud every day, and hanging out with latinos in my free time.

Why Italian?

I really wasn’t all that interested in Italian to begin with.  To be honest, the only reason I started taking Italian was because the UW’s trip to Spain had been cancelled that year (the prof and his wife were pregnant, so they canceled the trip).  I suppose there were trips to Latin America, but I wanted to go back to Europe.  Unfortunately there were no more UW Spain programs, but they did have a Rome program… so I took a summer intensive and one quarter of Italian–and loved it–and then applied to go to Rome.  They required two years on the application, but they accepted me into the program because… because study abroad programs never turn people away, that’s why.

Italian is probably my weakest language at the moment; I could pick it back up again pretty fast if I had to.  Regardless, I’m glad I learned Italian; it was formative in my philosophy of language learning.  You see, Italian is FUN; it’s fun to put on that accent, fun to talk to people, fun to know.  People take Italian because they want to be there, there are not a lot of skeevy fetish students, or meatheads who are just there for the requirement.

Also, there is none of that bullshit “no pain, no gain” crap that is ascribed to by students of other languages, especially students of Asian languages.  You don’t have to memorize anything in Italian, nobody is cramming those stupid flashcards.  Everybody seems to know that you acquire Italian by just talking, reading, staying engaged, and allowing yourself to be entertained.

So thank God I learned that lesson though Italian, that languages are acquirable. I consider Italian to be my second second language, after French.  True, I did study abroad in France first, and I did acquire it when I lived there, but French has a way of making you feel bad about making mistakes; so even though acquisition was totally happening, it wasn’t all that fun.  Italian was the opposite; your mistakes were a laugh, and eventually you learned to stop making them.

Why Tagalog?

I studied Tagalog because I couldn’t find a class in my Pangasinan, my parents’ language. Tagalog, of course, is the official national language of the Philippines (the de facto lingua franca being Philippine English), so Tagalog was probably a better choice than Pangasinan.  I remember when I was very young, maybe three or four years old, telling my dad that I wanted to speak Filipino.  In 2002 I took that summer intensive, which was a bust since the teachers wouldn’t stop speaking English to us, and wouldn’t or couldn’t teach us any focus grammar.

I haven’t totally given up on Tagalog, but at this point the only thing I can do to further my Tagalog education is to move to the Philippines and go native, and I can’t finance that at this point.

What’s next?

I’m not really looking past Chinese at the moment, at least not making any decisions.  However, Portuguese seems like a logical choice, given that I have a lot of Brazilian friends.  Korean or Japanese are both possibilities, for similar reasons.  I’m kind of tickled by the idea of learning Arabic or Persian, because I’d love to learn how to write in that script, and also because I love Middle Eastern cuisines.

When I was younger, I wanted to learn languages for the sake of learning them; I was a language slut just for the fun of it, no real direction or meaning to it.  Nowadays my focus is a little sharper; I want to get to know people.  Also, I want to be the “cool” American, not the ugly one who butchers language after language with no hint of shame.

I should probably focus my energies on something more practical, like making more money or losing a hundred pounds, rather than all this language learning.  It’s not that I’m driven by obsession or curiosity, I just think it’s fun to dress up in a new language every now and again.  Also, I feel like I’m going to need these languages someday, that I’m preparing for something… and someday I’m going to be really thankful that I can speak both Chinese and Italian.  Is that weird?

5 thoughts on “Confessions of the Linguistically Promiscuous

  1. You’ve forgotten Kiwi English on your “to learn” list. You make not make it out the airport should you ever visit these fine shores….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s