Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How Languages Touched My Life ...! Part II

Yesterday I explained how much I love to learn foreign languages. I took you up to my life in South America and how I became confident in speaking Spanish. Today I will take you through the various languages that I have studied and share with you how they've influenced me (if you can bear with me that long!)


After I left Central America, I ended up moving to Indonesia. I was lost at first. I didn’t have a common language or cultural basis. My house mate used to write phrases for me to use with local taxi drivers and in the stores. Oh goodness, it was simple and exciting all over again. I was so motivated to learn! To this day I remember many words and phrases, but unfortunately, I can’t carry on a decent conversation anymore. Once it was no longer relevant to speak, read or write, I forgot the structures that I loved so much. They come back to me in glimpses sometimes. I especially remember double phrases such as "jalan-jalan" (traveling) and "ibu-ibu" and bapak-bapak" (ladies / gentlemen). Indonesian is a fun language with infixes used in everyday speech; prefixes and suffixes are added to make the language more formal.

In Japan, I remember my colleague and I running from place to place (such as bus stops, vending machines, and signage) identifying basic kanji or hiragana, a simpler Japanese alphabet. I felt like Helen Keller when she first discovered words meant she could communicate! I began to study after hours in my job, and then I took a placement test (over the telephone, no less!) that allowed me to enter the university. I began at the intermediate level. My instructor taught me to read and write in three different alphabets (the first non-roman alphabets I'd ever been exposed to). I also developed my listening skills in Japanese. I had to give a speech about climbing Mt Fuji in Japanese during the course. It was frightening and exciting at the same time! Again, my language was relevant and immediate to the life I lived in Japan. It was used to communicate with my boyfriend. So, I advanced rapidly, and was swept into the culture by the very complicated rules uses to refer to various levels of status and cultural habits.

When I moved to Egypt, again, I felt out of my element. But having been exposed to a non-western alphabet in Japan, I was not intimidated by the Arabic alphabet. First, I studied Arabic, and then I studied French through Arabic from an Egyptian General. It was at the same time the most difficult and rewarding language study I had ever done. I’m not sure how much French I actually came out of the class with, but my Arabic grew stronger every lesson! My Arabic did have that urgency as I began to think about marrying an Egyptian man. We walked along the Nile as I practiced my Egyptian Arabic. I remember thinking how melodious and beautiful it sounded when I listened to Egyptian music. It crowded everything else out of my mind. Needless to say that my Arabic grew in leaps and bounds!

When I moved to the Emirates, there was another form of Arabic to learn and another local culture to discover. It was more difficult and I relied on my Egyptian Arabic to get me through the market. But actually, the words differed and I had to mix my Arabic, or speak in English to be understood. I took classes and I learned to read and write like children do. I was consumed by this new language study and the dialectal differences that stood out to me.

Then came the crash!

When I returned to the United States, my languages lay dormant, and I had no use for them. They became mixed up in my head, and I forgot which word went with which culture. Words in the various languages popped out at random and at times, interfered with my normal communication. I felt lost in my own country. English seemed so limiting. How could I express the complexity of life experiences I had gone through for so many years in one simple language?

Looking back on my language experiences, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity and exposure to them. I made many wonderful friends whom I still communicate with today. But in having lost the integral structures of those languages, I feel like I lost the part that connected to deeply with those I'd made contact with over the years.

God knew this part of me needed to be revitalized, so He provided me with a position teaching Spanish. At first, I was frightened to teach it. I had set it aside over twenty-five years earlier and it intimidated me to teach Spanish as a foreign language. But my friends encouraged me, and God gave me the opportunity to do so.

Teaching Spanish has linked me back to my first love. Life once again abounds with words and images in me that links me to a beautiful foreign culture that exists even within my own country. I teach with a passion that I once studied with.

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