“I can pretend to speak a lot of languages pretty well,” I often tell people. “Enough to get into trouble, not quite enough to get out;” the same explanation I usually give when people want to know how much I can see.
From the time I took my first German class in 8th grade to my departure from my Peace Corps post in Kyrgyzstan in December 2015, I studied one foreign language or another pretty much continuously for all those years. That’s 1988 to 2015, by the way–26 years. I can only account for a combined total of a couple of years during that time that I was not actively studying or using my language skills, and it was not unusuall for me to be managing more than one language at a time. And now I just don’t. I haven’t, really, since returning from Kyrgyzstan. And it seems a waste to let that skill go fallow. So onto my 19 for 2019 list it went–resurrect some language skills. Seems simple enough. Except I took up yarn crafting and plotting world domination with a side hustle and have made absolutely no progress on this item, but that doesn’t mean I won’t.
The Back Story
I took German to fill my first public school language requirement in 8th grade, because Spanish was just too ubiquitous and I had no desire to learn French, and I knew my dad and maternal grandmother had some knowledge of German. So my journey with German started with Herr Lynch, who was quite possibly my first positive disability role model. He wore hearing aids and was missing a thumb at the first knuckle and made it a point to disclose on the first day of every year, pointing out the obvious before awkward 8th graders could and completely deflating their joy by owning his disabilities openly. Moving on to high school, I took at least two years more of German with Herr Ive, who was witty, refined, charismatic, and grew a beard to ward off skin cancer. I will forever remember him for eating an apple every day during class, flicking the seeds onto the floor with the pen that hung from a cord around his neck as he ate. “You will never forget the German word for seed,” he would often tell us, “it’s samen,” he’d say as he flicked another seed onto the floor, knowing that dirty humor appealed to his teenage audience. I would resume my study of German at Santa Barbara City College for three semesters with Frau Schmidt, and work a crappy summer job in Cologne through awork exchange program. I would return to Europe thereafter for further travel and find it useful, though haven’t really used it much since. Perhaps because I studied it so long, perhaps because it is so close to English, this is a language that has stuck pretty well, and while I’m far from fluent, I could pull this skill up again in a pinch with little effort.
Fun fact: I studied Esperanto for about a minute sometime during my tenure at SBCC. Because I could.
Next came Japanese. At some point well into my long academic career at Santa Barbara City College, I discovered that I was hopelessly in love with Asia, and for some reason, Japanese stood out to me as a language of great elegance and beauty, and SBCC offered classes, so I started learning it under the tutelage of Wakita Sensei, both available semesters. I soon found myself on a study abroad trip to China and Vietnam, for which I prepared by checking out language learning cassettes from the library, both Mandarin and Vietnamese, and buying the textbooks for the Chinese classes, which had just recently been added to foreign language offerings at SBCC. I didn’t take the class, but studied from the book on my own time. By the time I came back from this trip, I was dedicated to transferring to the University of California Santa Barbara to major in Linguistics with an emphasis in Japanese, so I repeated Wakita Sensei’s two semesters of Japanese before transferring and studying multiple semesters of advanced modern Japanese, Classical Japanese, and Japanese Linguistics. I went on to the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where I continued taking small group, intensive Japanese classes each of the four semesters I was there. I always felt like the more I learned, the harder it got, though I know at my peak, my skills were probably pretty kick-ass. Back in my SBCC days and continuing through UCSB, one of my closest girlfriends happened to be a very endearing and liberated Japanese girl that I got to share quite a few very special young adult years with–she was part of a circle of girlfriends that were so mind-blowingly special, I didn’t realize the gift I had until it was gone. She patiently put up with my Asia fetish and supported my language learning and cultural understanding. In all those nearly 10 years I studied Japanese actively, I visited Japan only once, just for a week, and it just so happened that I was able to visit Mami, my friend from Santa Barbara, there, spending just a few days with her in her native Osaka and having the privilege of a local host to make my visit that much more unique. After just a week, I could feel the difference in my ability to both speak and understand. I would have some opportunity to apply all these years of effort in 2010 to 2011 when I worked part-time for the Japan Society of Northern California. It was far from a functional skill, though I’m pretty sure it was helpful in getting the job and proved to be a useful cultural asset in my day to day work. While I made efforts to keep up and build my skills–listening to NHK podcasts, getting a Netflix subscription to watch Japanese movies, and even taking advantage of free language classes for staff at JSNC, this was the last I’d really use this asset beyond occasionally listening to NHK podcasts during my Peace Corps service and befriending a JICA volunteer with whom I could playfully exercise my skills.
Bahasa Indonesia tantilized my tongue oh so briefly beginning in 1998 and I recommend learning an Austronesian language to anyone–the plosive Bs, the trilled Rs, and the reduplication give it an energetic and effervescent quality that is simply delightful. My love affair with Indonesia began when I met some cool Indonesian peeps while attending the Love Parade in Berlin in 1998, having traveled there from Cologne with my Indonesian roommates’s friend. One of them invited me to travel home with him and, well, I just couldn’t say no, so I followed that cute Indonesian boy to Indonesia and ended up befriending his family, even if things didn’t work out so well between the two of us. Three times I’d visit Indonesia, and with local hosts who generously and repeatedly took in this crazy American college girl who kept dropping in, my knowledge of the food, language, and culture was pretty good.
There was a brief affair with Arabic while I was at MIIS. I’d looked at some Arabic data in an undergraduate linguistics course while learning about vowel harmony and I knew I had to study it one day. Between the vowel harmony and the unique phonemic inventory, I was in linguistic love. Once I realized I would have to enroll at the local community college in Monterey to take care of a pre-requisite for one of my graduate courses, I couldn’t resist adding some cheap language classes to my load, and they had Arabic. Mr. Tamimi hailed from Hebron, was polite and proper to a fault, and warm and friendly to each and every person that crossed his path. His day job was teaching Arabic at the local Defense Language Institute, and he taught at the community college as a side hustle, claiming simply that he really just loved what he did. As long as you showed up to class and participated, you got a passing grade, which was great for me, because I was taking like 26 units that semester between my graduate load and my community college load, which I learned too late was a terible idea. He once said something less than flattering about the president of Egypt, and when people argued over the origin of falafel, as Greeks, Turks, Arabs, and Israelis are want to do, he said calmly, “Well, I’ll tell you what, you give us Gaza and the West Bank, and you can have the falafel,” and that was the most controversial thing I ever heard him say.
I did take a short, intensive Chinese course during graduate school in follow up to my self-study and time in China, and would take a community college intro semester during a time of transition just before leaving Monterey, and that is the extent of my encounter with Mandarin.
There, was, of course, that train wreck of a relationship that dominated my entire graduate school career with a Korean, who showed me where my spine is and clearly taught me how I never want to be treated by another human, and I picked up some rudimentary Korean along the way, most of it wildly inappropriate, or learned because it was attached to something inappropriate. The most complex sentence I ever really conjured was, “Your nose is a booger-mining factory.” So there’s that, I guess.
And then in 2013, I got my Peace Corps assignment to Kyrgyzstan. I knew that my assigned language would be Kyrgyz, and because I knew I’d be in the capital, Bishkek, where Russian is widely spoken, and because Russian language learning materials are relatively abundant, and Kyrgyz materials virtually non-existent, I started teaching myself Russian. In the nearly two years I lived in Kyrgyzstan, my fluency in Kyrgyz was perhaps the most fluent I’ve been in a language. I studied it more briefly than most, but living it all day, every day truly did have a significant impact. Kyrgyz will also always be a special language to me because its the first and only language I’ve studied using braille as a medium. By the time I departed, I had a solid handle on navigating the bazaar, chatting up all my regular vendors and finding all the items I needed, navigating public transportation, and among the most challenging of foreign language skills–managing articulately interactions with well-meaning members of the public with misunderstandings or low expectations around disability. I had some encounters with neighbors and the police that really put my skills to the test, and I never thought that ordering a pizza or calling a taxi would feel like such a victory and a milestone, and I did all those things. I even picked up just enough Russian to explain to people that I wasn’t actually Turkish, and that I spoke Kyrgyz, not Russian, and could manage some basic transactions at the bazaar with Russian vendors. Most of that is sadly gone now. I recall not long after coming back, calling an Uber, and my driver, with a distinctive Kyrgyz name, was expecting my friends and I to cross a busy and crowded downtown San Francisco street at mid block during commute time and I was trying to request that she go around the block to pick us up more appropriately. What I really wanted to do was break out my Kyrgyz and ask if she was crazy, and I found that I couldn’t pull the words in the moment that I needed them, and I knew it was already slipping away.
Spanish, it’s worth mentioning, is a language I’ve never studied formally, though I watched Sesame Street, grew up in California, and hung out with Spanish Translation & Interpretation students in graduate school, and my bestie is Puerto Rican with visiting parents who use Spanish with one another and a son in Spanish immersion school. Comprendo, pero no hablo bien. Spanish is just a normal part of living in California, even if you don’t really speak it.
I’m a super word nerd, and I love to geek out over language. There are lots of other linguistic bits and pieces that I’ve dabbled in along the way, especially in my travelling days–learn at least to say hello, thank you, and ask for beer, food, and a toilet. Perhaps one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had recently, and one which made me feel like all those years of study might have been worth something, was when I overheard a colleague struggling to understand the person on the other end of her phone call. “I’m sorry, I just can’t undrstand you, could you repeat your self, please?” She painfully repeated multiple times, until finally grabbing my attention. “Serena,” she said, cupping the receiver with her hand. “Will you listen to this guy and tell me if he’s even speaking English? I can’t undrstand a word he’s saying.” I took the phone and listened thoughtfully for a few seconds. It was clearly not English, I heard pattern and structure on an intuitive level, and was pretty sure I heard things that sounded like latin cognates. “Hi,” I interjected. “What’s your name?” He suddenly stopped chattering and simply responded, “Yanos.” Sounds Greek, maybe, I wondered. “Clearly not a native speaker of English, I asked, “Yanos, where are you from?” “Hungary,” he replied. “Yanos, we don’t speak Hungarian and we’re going to need you to use English, I requested. “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking, I must have gotten carried away and was thinking I was talking to my niece who comes over here to help me.” Yanos is getting on in years and there was likely some early onset dementia at play in that exchange, and while my very intelligent colleague was focused on making English sense out of his Hungarian, my multi-linguistically trained brain simply absorbed like a sponge, processed, and allowed me to identify quickly that it was not English, not even gibberish, process, and move on to the next logical question to narrow down what we were hearing.
So Now What?
My brain is still wired like a linguist and many chunks of all that language learning are certainly hard-wired into my brain, though I did not actively resurrect any of these skills, and it’s totally worth keeping on the list, so this one will totally roll over to next year–the question is, which one?
Next post: did I fold any origami this year?