On Language

By Emily

I’ve been trying to come up with a coherent post about my experiences with language on this trip, but I consistently come up short. There are so many different aspects to this topic that it’s hard to find a thread to string them together – hence my title, “On Language.” Still, I’m going to attempt writing this, in no small part because I’m interested to see what my friends and family have to offer from their own perspectives – please comment!

I’ll begin at the beginning, I guess.

I studied Spanish for a semester in sixth grade, then a semester about a year ago after college. I studied French for three years in high school and three and a half years in college. I took a semester of German on top of that, and have been using the occasional language-learning apps to practice my skills and attempt new languages sporadically. But still, I consider myself an English-only speaker, with a minor French proficiency.

And boy, am I lucky.

In every hostel I’ve stayed in – six so far in Japan – the default language used has been English. Germans, Portuguese, Thai, Turkish, Mexican travelers all introduce themselves to one another with “Hello, my name is…” Many of these individuals are in their twenties and thirties, and all use English with a comfort and skill-level I’ve never reached in my own language pursuits. Quite frankly, because of this phenomenon, I’ll never really “have to” learn another language. The world around me has evolved towards catering to my culture, which causes me both extreme relief and acute discomfort.

On the one hand, it’s normally easier for all participants in a conversation to immediately switch to English than to watch an English speaker struggle through foreign verb conjugation. Because our (speaking for Americans here) education system doesn’t prioritize language-learning, many of us weren’t even given the option to expand our speech until high school or college, quite a few years after the “ideal” developmental period of pre-K. Other nations begin language-learning much earlier, and for a variety of socio-political-economic reasons, English has been a very common second language to teach.

I’m certainly benefiting from these phenomena – less formal schooling AND other people cater to me?? Hell yeah!! – but I’m aware of the problems implicit within them. For instance, should the world suddenly stop catering to Americans, I’d be screwed. And from a more progressive standpoint, I’m part of a system that’s hindering my own mental growth. Dozens of studies show the benefits of learning multiple languages – they broaden your mind measurably, allowing you to look at problems and situations from a myriad of perspectives in ways that single-language speakers can’t grasp. Looking at the current political situation in the US, I think it’s fairly clear that many of us have certain stunted narrow-minded attitudes that are manifesting themselves in racism, violence, and willful ignorance (not to say that a lack of language-learning is the only influence at play here, but it absolutely doesn’t help).

So here I am, a witless American touring a country whose official language I can’t begin to comprehend. Sure, I have the basics covered – “Please,” “Sorry,” “Thank you,” “Where is the plum wine?” – but putting together a sentence is like pulling my own teeth. Invariably I’ve been rescued by a kindly shopkeeper with some English, or by Ethan (who adores learning languages) eager to practice his Japanese. Most Japanese citizens respond to him with a combination of surprise and delight, totally floored that this pasty-white blue-eyed foreigner is asking them questions in (mostly) grammatically-correct Japanese. Quite often, they compliment him on his language skills if he says anything beyond “Konnichiwa” or “Arigatou gozaimasu.” As his girlfriend, I love watching him astound other people. But as his travel partner, I wonder if I’m depending too much on him in situations that could advance my own language-learning, for fear of the anxiety and embarrassment that comes with language practice.

It’s not as if all of Japan speaks perfect English – one of our favorite travel pastimes has been pointing out billboards, shirts, and storefronts with odd English-inspired phrases on them. Things like “I Hate’ Mondays,” “Wel Come,” or “It is strong in time, and it is gently to time tough at time” (which I still haven’t figured out) have us nudging each other and giggling. But when I flip the situation, in which I were a store owner trying to cater to Japanese clients, I certainly would do much worse in trying to diagram a phrase in Japanese. This fear of speaking less-than-perfectly is part of the reason I gave up on learning Japanese after memorizing hiragana (the phonetic Japanese alphabet) and beginning katakana.

But then again, this journey isn’t about doing anything perfectly. It’s about getting outside of my comfort zone long enough to learn something, to see something new, to talk to a person (or ten) I’ve never met before. Perhaps this whole essay “On Language” is really about the difficulty in leaving comfortable situations behind, and embracing the unknown.

Or maybe, I’m just procrastinating studying Mandarin before we arrive in China.

2 thoughts on “On Language

  1. Love this, Emily! I agree that we, as Americans, now depend on people of other cultures to speak English when we travel. We actually expect it! As a teacher, I have always felt we have been missing opportunities to immerse kids in foreign languages at a young age, as other countries do. Good for you for learning all that you have and continuing to aspire to learn more. I understand your fear of sounding “less than perfect” when speaking another language. I feel that way when trying to converse in Maltese. I end up depending on Ray to do all the talking when we are there. Perhaps on our upcoming trip, I will try to do more of the talking. You’ve inspired me! Continued safe travels to you and Ethan.
    Mary Xuereb

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  2. I often have the thought, “I should learn a language” and then immediately get stumped as to what language I should learn. What is most useful in our current world? French? Japanese? ASL? Chinese? None of them have immediate use and the one that does, Spanish, I know enough to have a basic conversation. That said, when I was in Mexico I barely spoke Spanish as everyone saw me and just started speaking English. It seems rude to make them struggle through my bad Spanish when they are more than proficient enough at English. So I end up dedicating my time to other things and then feel bad again when I am in a place knowing one of those languages might be helpful.

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