How Foreign Languages Let You Connect with People All over the World
"LOLing with Language Lovers" Guest Blog Series:
Zach joins us from Japan to chime in on friends, travel and how foreign languages let you connect with people all over the world. Thanks for sharing your adventures and stories with us, Señor Strauss!
I am a language learner and a language lover. Perhaps that comes from my inability to keep my mouth shut, or in other words, I love to talk to people. I grew up in the diverse megalopolis that is Houston, Texas, listening to my grandparents speak Yiddish and my friends converse with their families in many languages ranging from Spanish to Farsi. Perhaps it was fate that the public elementary school adjacent to my childhood home was in fact a language magnet school. In kindergarten, for rounds of three months, we “sampled” the different languages offered at the school: Spanish, French, and Japanese. I learned how to use chopsticks and distinctly remember the effervescent joy that surged my body as a pointed to my nose and shouted “nariz!”
Following that, I could only choose Spanish, and continued to study it at an elementary level until fifth grade. At the same time, like any good Jewish American boy, I also learned to read and write the Hebrew language at Sunday and Wednesday night school in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah (which I destroyed by the way.) I grew up with language, but it wasn’t until fifth grade math class that I truly understood how a foreign tongue provided cross-cultural insight.
One day my math teacher asked his class of bewildered fifth graders why “lb” stood for pound. Nobody said anything and it did not seem that anybody knew why; it was just another example of how America doesn’t give a shit about what the rest of the world thinks (screw you, logical and mathematically reasonable metric system).
But then, one of my friends, Arcila Rivas, shouted from the back of the class, “Libra!” Mr. Silk enquired, “and what does Libra mean?” Libra is Spanish for pound, a derivative of an older Latin word that the English language had borrowed. It struck me that, because she spoke Spanish, she had insight into something I did not understand. She knew a code I could not decipher; her life and experiences had more possibilities. If anything, I thought it was extremely cool that she navigated two linguistic identities and could utilize both at will when necessary.
Kolter Elementary was a diverse place, religiously, ethnically, and linguistically. With that experience as a driving force, I was forever motivated to engage with others in different languages, and to bridge the gaps that divide borders and cultures. This takes us to Mexico. I was encouraged to take part in a one-month study abroad program in Cuernavaca during the summer of my freshman year of high school. I lived with a petite Mexican host mother, Hermila. My Spanish was rudimentary at best, but what motivated me the most to learn, was my inability to express myself to Hermila in the way I wanted. Now that I consider myself highly proficient in Spanish, people always ask me how and where I learned to speak so well. I always answer, “in a small capital city in Mexico with a bright-smiled kind woman who taught me everything I know.” In one month, I had acquired the confidence I needed to keep learning, and not just Spanish, but other languages. With confidence, I was able to approach mask vendors, churro makers, attend lucha libre and understand what the flip was actually happening. I was able to form a bond with a woman of a different culture and language, and my relationship with her, however short, has forever shaped me.
A Norwegian friend of mine recently relayed that I am the only American he has ever met who has actually attempted to pronounce foreign languages properly, and it was a compliment I took to heart. But in all reality, learning languages is not about meticulously memorizing vocabulary or flawlessly pronouncing the two absurdly guttural “r” sounds in the French “prendre.” It’s only about one thing: trying your best. If you just attempt to initiate a conversation in another person’s first language, you automatically have received the initial respect from your conversation partner that you need to continue the conversation. They will be more relaxed when speaking with you, they will smile more, and they will never degrade you for your mistakes. With every mistake you make, and every physical signifier that you are working hard to express your thoughts in a language that is currently exhausting your brain, they will like you even more. They will open up to you, and be more willing to show you their culture from the other side of what at the time may seem to be a linguistically cerebral divide.
When I was sixteen, I chose to participate in a study abroad summer program in Sevilla, Spain. I lived with a host family in the city’s old Gypsy quarter, and although I had studied Spanish for two years and previously lived in Mexico, I could have never been prepared for the accent these Andalusians are famous for. But seriously, it was as if I had never learned Spanish at all. What changed my ability to comprehend was not more classroom experience, but effort and a knack for conversation. Every night at midnight, my 23-year-old host brother would come home from his job at, I kid you not, “Sloppy Joe’s Pizza.” (Clearly a Spanish staple). Outside of the 12-3 AM window, I never really saw him, but I made the most of the time that he chose to spend with me. We talked about Christianity, the Holocaust, Spanish fascism, bodybuilding, and every other conversation topic that I pulled out of my ass at the appropriate moment. With those conversations, my Spanish improved rapidly, more quickly than I could have ever imagined. I started to grow closer to my host brother, and as soon as he walked in the door and saw me sitting on the couch of his tiny Spanish “piso,” he knew he needed to get a cup of water and bunker down for the long haul. He taught me about Spain, Andalusia, slang, Catholicism, and the like. It didn’t matter that he was seven years older than me, of different a religion and from a different country; I attempted to speak to him in his language, and with every attempt not only did my language abilities improve, but I also started to feel more and more like family.
We are still friends to this day, and I have visited that family on return visits to Sevilla. He still can’t speak English, but hey, that doesn’t mean he can’t feel like my brother.
I trudged on, and began studying Italian on my own and then upon arrival in Romagna, Italy, where I worked as a English language tutor at summer camps for to two consecutive summers. It was there that I found my passion for food and cooking, and truly understood that language is more than words deep. Language lives in the culture; it’s part of a people’s mannerisms, and it’s baked into their pasta.
Just for the sole fact that I could communicate in Italian confidently, my host families opened up to me. Even if my grammar wasn’t perfect or I used the wrong word here or there, every single dinner and lunch, aside from being divine, was accompanied by insightful, fun, and truly cross cultural conversation, complete with over-exaggerative gesticulations and lewd jokes.
My second host family in Italy will always be the most impressionable. I quickly befriended my 21-year-old host brother and his twin sister. They took me under their wing for the entire week, taking me along to hang out with their other university-age Italian friends, to the beach, to raves, and to lunches with their entire extended family. I felt like a member of some huge international club; I felt welcomed; I felt accepted into an incredibly hospitable and kind national linguistic community that gave me even more reason to fall in love with Italy.
Over my cumulative four-month stay in Italy over two consecutive summers, I spoke with a lot of random strangers that became friends, and with a lot of friends that became family. One such stranger turned friend sticks out above the rest, most likely for the sheer spontaneity of our meeting. For a total of five weeks, I worked and lived in a small provincial town in the region of Romagna known as Forlimpopli, or as we called it, “the big Forlimpopes.” It has a population of about 8 thousand and nobody outside of a five-town radius ever goes there, especially not a 20-year-old Texan with a Jew fro. Given American credit cards (those chip-less bastards), don’t work in Italian train ticket machines, a kind older lady paid for my ticket as I reimbursed her in cash. Following our exchange, the minuscule paper form of a ticket I received did not fit in the validation machine. A spunky 20 something Italian university student helped me out. Both the older woman and the student began conversing with me, and were dumbfounded by not only the fact that I could speak proficient Italian, but by the fact that I was just sitting there with them at the dinky Forlimpoli train station. The woman inquires, “but really, why are you here? Nobody comes here.” The three of us, an unlikely new three amigos, boarded the train and continued our fun cross-cultural conversation in adjacent seats. The woman departed and I figured out that the student lived very close to my host family. I didn’t have work that week and thought, “what the hell is there to lose?” I asked him if he wanted to hang out that week, and he agreed. I kid you not; the following day he picked me up from “la Rocca di Forlimpoli, the castle-like pride and joy of the town, and drove me to one of Romagna’s nicest beaches. He introduced me to his English-speaking girlfriend, bought my lunch, and shared an all around incredible day with me. When he dropped me off, I knew I’d never see him again, but that didn’t matter. With language came friendship, and with that friendship, I was provided with an unforgettable and wonderfully bizarre memory. Generosity is everywhere: put yourself out there and people all over the world will never fail to surprise you.
Somehow the State Department gods granted me an internship at U.S. Consulate General Barcelona for that following summer. Spain is a very linguistically diverse country with a long history of regional successions and nationalistic movements. Barcelona, capital of the very proud region of Cataluña, is a hot bed of anti-Spanish sentiment. The Catalans love their culture, their music, their history, and most of all, their language. While at the consulate, I worked alongside four American officers, and a total of 30 Catalan Spanish nationals. They spoke Catalan, Spanish (castellano) and English all at the same time, often code-switching word after word just because they felt a new lingual surge coming on. I did not speak Catalan when I arrived, nor had I ever heard it spoken before. If one does not speak Catalan in Barcelona, especially as a Spanish national, they are deemed an outsider and are not given the same respect as those of the same linguistic family. Catalan is the first language of the majority of Catalans, and therefore, they express themselves better when speaking it. Over time, I grew to understand almost 75% of what they were saying, but I still could never speak it. But just allowing them to speak to me in their native language opened up their hearts to the little “interncito” they looked down upon from above. Those “stuck up secessionist Catalans” grew to be some of my favorite people in Spain, and while I could only understand their first language, I could always respond to them in their second.
This brings me to today: my life in Kumamoto City, Japan. Prior to arriving in Japan, I had zero interest in East Asia and zero interest in Japanese culture. That is the reason I chose to take this English-teaching job on one of the world’s most insular and isolated nations. The Japanese are very proud of their culture and heritage, and tend to believe that it is one that belongs to them alone. They tend to think I can’t use chopsticks, operate the simple bus machines, pour a Japanese beer, and most of all, speak Japanese. Well, most people outside of Japan can’t and never will speak Japanese. Mostly only Japanese people can or learn to speak Japanese, given it’s only spoken on a series of four somewhat connected islands in the far east. Despite that they study English for a total of 10 years, very few people in Japan actually learn to speak English or acquire the confidence to hold an English language conversation with a native speaker. With little ability to speak to people here upon arrival, life in Japan was very lonely, frustrating, confusing, and stressful. I couldn't express my thoughts, ask about the Kosher status of school lunch, or even understand the seemingly Newtonian rules pinned to Japanese dodgeball. I couldn’t ask the third grader what her favorite animal was during recess or bro-out with the younger teacher who sat next to me in the teacher’s room. Life in Japan with little or no knowledge of Japanese is a sad one, an impossible one, an insular one. Little by little, I learned more words and grammatical concepts. Today, after only three months of living in Japan, I can instruct simultaneously in both English and Japanese, I can answer any question the fourth graders have regarding what they think is my “permed” hair, and I can have full length lunch time conversations with 8th graders on how to make cheese from scratch. Language, especially in a nation as closed off as Japan, is paramount to a happy existence. Without it, you are wandering in your own thoughts, unable to express them, trapped in an English language bubble of your own confusion.
I'm glad I was able to learn these languages and recommend a Spanish Tutor for anyone interested in learning a second language...