Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why I Learn Languages...

The decision was made in Munich, Germany. It was the latter part of our All Saints week while studying abroad in France. I was drinking with Ali and Stephen at the Hofbrauhaus. At one point, it was an authentic German beer hall, but now it's a bit tacky (though if you're in Munich, you have to go at least once). Nevertheless, there is still decent mix of tourists and locals. At our table (it's a long, shared table) were two other men and a woman. The two guys knew each other, but the woman was eating alone. However, similar to the friendliness of an Irish pub, we started a conversation.

Beer does that to you...

This woman, it turned out, was actually Ukrainian. Naturally, she spoke Ukrainian and learned Russian as her second language, having grown up behind the Iron Curtain. She was talking to us, though, in fluent English. Living in Germany for several years, she also knew German. Total: 4 languages.

The other two guys at our table spoke limited English, so they talked to her in German, and then she translated it for us into English. Through her, we found out that they were Swiss. They grew up in a German speaking part, so they spoke German and Swiss German (which are mutually unintelligible). They also spoke fluent Italian (which they were drunkenly trying to teach Ali how to hit on girls, Ciao bella). And then, just to top it off, in their hometown, they use an Old Swiss dialect (another branch of German, but different than Swiss Standard German). Their grand total: 4 languages.

But I shouldn't feel too bad, right? It's not like Ali and Stephen speak 4 languages as well. Right? 

Well, Stephen grew up speaking Cantonese to his mom. In Ali's family, they speak Farsi. Both grew up bilingual. With French: 3 languages each.

Which left me, like Ali and Stephen, a French language learner (not fluent, but proficient). Unlike them, though, I spoke English at home. With no special "bonus" language for me, my total: 2 languages.

I never felt more inadequate in my life. That's when I realized that I ought to learn more. If not for the practical reason that I'll be able to speak with more of the world as I travel, then perhaps for the next time I'm at that table, I'll be the one translating for others. Or at least, not feel so linguistically left out.

Why I chose Spanish, though, is another story...


  1. I LOVE your blog Justin. Just wanted to let you know.

    Why did you take Spanish? So you'll be employable in California?

  2. So how many languages can you speak now?

  3. @Krampus Thanks, I'm glad you like reading it. Why Spanish... it really is another story that I'll hopefully get around to later this week.

    @Ceci Well, English fluently. I studied French since middle school. My Spanish was pretty good at one point, but since I started Japanese, my other languages have been slowly dying... I'll have to relearn them before trying for a new language after Japanese.