¿Que? My Spanish Improved In Japan?

Studying Abroad: Japan
Studying Abroad: Japan

In college I had the most amazing privilege of studying abroad and it was very definitely a life-changing experience.  In fact, I say now to anyone who is in college: “Do not hesitate for a moment to study abroad and do not let a  language barrier deter you from selecting the location you desire to visit most.”  Ultimately though, the purpose of such a trip ought to be language exploration and eventual acquisition.  As for me, the experience was in Japan.  Nagoya, Japan to be a bit more descriptive and it was during my time there, throughout all the lessons, meals with my host family, and interaction with the locals that not only my Japanese took root but–and quite unconsciously–my Spanish did grow.

It makes no sense…at first.

Language is a peculiar thing: Every word counts, rings, roars with its own ferocity and gentle grace; Grammar and how you use it plays a major role in the overall sound and feel of your writing; and finally, pronunciation tunes your ears and mouth into fine instruments of correct communication.

Language learning is a peculiar thing: As you learn one language you are reminded of others.  One word vibrates some chord that you recognize from deep in your language library…but it’s a different language;  grammar in one language builds off of previous grammar…but from a different language; and the words on your tongue dance in magical tunes all to familiar but completely foreign at the same time.


You see, elements of language learning are complex relationships that exist within our minds as our minds connect vast networks of information, seeking similarities in language as a kind memory tool.  In my experience, one of the moments where I recognize these bridges being built in my mind is when I hear a word in one language that sounds surprisingly like it ought to belong in another language.  For example, one such word that I found in Japanese is the word for “but” as in, “I want to go but I have an appointment”.  One way of expressing this is to say, “行きたい。でも、約束があるんだ。”(Ikitai.  Demo, yakusoku ga arunnda.)   The word でも is pronounced “demo” and is the word for “but” or “however” and to me it sounded like it came right out of Spanish.

Sure I had heard the word “demo” before as a short form of the word “demonstration” but it never really rang like it did in Japanese, for two reasons.

  1. “Demo” in Japanese does not denote any longer word like “demonstration” and therefore the sound and idea of the word was isolated to two syllables.
  2. The Spanish word for “but” is “pero”.  This word not only ends in “O” like its Japanese counterpart but is also only two syllables in length.   One other note: both words have the same structure (consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel)

    Language in the Mind: Organized yet Unintelligible

    Language in the Mind: Organized yet Unintelligible

For these reasons and perhaps for some strange reasoning of my subconscious, these two words became interchangeable in my mind, a form of Language dyslexia is you will.  Couple this strange connection in my mind with the fact that there were several students at Nanzan University that wished to practice their Spanish with me and you have the makings of a mind lost in language.  Spanish, in case you are not aware, is so similar to Japanese in pronunciation it is perplexing.  Not only are the “r”s rolled in Japanese just as they are in Spanish but every vowel is pronounced the same in both languages!  So in the confusion and uncanny similarity I began to interchange Spanish with Japanese throughout my speech, and the truly befuddling part of it all was that Spanish-Japanese bilinguals not only understood it but found it quite amusing!

行きたい。Pero お金が無い。
Yo quiero ir  でも  no tengo plata.

Phrases such as these rolled off my tongue as if they were perfectly natural.  To this day, as I acquire more and more languages, my sentences become even more convoluted and varied:

I want to 行くpero お金が없다

Yeah, good luck with that.  Interestingly, the only part of this sentence that I don’t think fits in quite right is the English.  Maybe the blending is most fluid in my mind for languages other than my native speech.

Yet beyond the reasons previously mentioned, I feel that there is one more vital point to make and it is the reason why any language learner would benefit from acquiring more than one foreign language: Learning Japanese alongside teaching Spanish all the while living in a foreign country gave me (among other things) ears keen to subtle pronunciation discrepancies as well as a mouth capable of interpreting and accurately reproducing such sounds.  More concretely, my ability to grasp individual words in casual spoken Japanese as well as Spanish exploded.  Within four short months of living in Japan I was speaking better than all but the best students (who had been studying Japanese for much longer than I) as well as comfortably watching live newscasts from Chile.  My comprehension was only limited by my vocabulary!

To this day I continue to study Japanese and receive hearty praise for my pronunciation.  Presently, as I study Korean, I have been receiving similar compliments and praise for surprisingly natural-sounding pronunciation as well as my quick learning curve.

Where Do I Start?

If you know more than one language you are already on your way.  Perfect pronunciation can never be our ultimate goal but the ability to discern obscure sound and intonation differences will serve to improve not only your immediate target language but also your grasp of every other language!  Again, I can not stress enough how personally insightful and linguistically enlightening your study abroad experience can be so–given that you still have the opportunity–do not waste a moment to sign yourself up for some far-off destination, it will only help you grow.

Please feel free to comment.


5 thoughts on “¿Que? My Spanish Improved In Japan?

  1. I not only studied a broad. I studied many broads. hehehe. I had to. Yeah, think about it. Which is another point about studying a foreign language – the subtleties of homonyms and slang. Language teachers always say that students will pick up slang later. While I understand the logic, wouldn’t it be beneficial to learn about slang early on to get a better appreciation for the culture in which that language is used and how language in turn affects culture?

    • That’s great Robin! Come to think about it, before really learning any language in a classroom it may be beneficial to just spend some time with bilinguals of the target as well as your own language. Still, I feel that regardless of the stage in our learning we ought to make an active effort to meet with native speakers as a way of assessing our progress, gaining valuable non-textbook insight, and just making friends. My previous article, titled Language Exchange: Mutually Detrimental, may contradict me however.

  2. There are two reasons why we improve in a second language when we learn a third. First of all, we become better language learners. Our brains become more flexible. Second of all, the second language continues to gestate in our brains, even if we leave it alone for a while. I speak 11 languages and have often experienced this.

    • Mr. Kaufmann,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I am familiar with your extensive work in linguistics as well as your deep library of YouTube videos on everything from Esperanto, German, French, and everything in-between (I especially liked your videos titled “Forgetting and Learning Languages“) so I am flattered and honored to have you as a visitor to my blog. Do you think that this “flexibility” that you mentioned extends beyond just language and into a more accepting world-view, higher levels of patience, and faster cultural absorption? I hope that we can continue to correspond in the future. Until then I am sincerely,

      ~Dorian Wacquez

  3. I personally can relate to this entry that you had written. As I know English, Chinese and Japanese (and currently learning Korean), I always have instances when I mixed the different languages in one statement.

    And what you mentioned about being able to make out the subtle sounds makes so much sense. Now that I’m learning Korean, I realized that I can make out the subtle sounds.

    Thanks for the REALLY interesting post. I’m becoming a fan!

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