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.
- “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.
- 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)
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!
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.