Monday, October 6, 2014

The Value of [Foreign] Words: An Exercise in Personal Narrative

The art of the personal narrative was something we explored in our first project. We did brainstorming, wrote segments, and did peer reviewing on our route to a competent story. In this we were explorers, some of us more than others. I am nearly 40 years old, so my narrative essay about my pathway to learning foreign languages and making them part of my life was a bit more like delving into the past. I wish I had treated my writing in high school more like Samuel Pepys, and written about this journey as it was happening. Instead my daily writings were full of my typical teenage angst and only the most tangential comments.

Of course, this essay wasn't just supposed to be an exercise in writing about a choice. We were also supposed to write in a way to make that choice applicable for other people. I will let you be the judge of how well I succeeded in making studying foreign languages interesting and valuable to you.

“Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children.”
It is 7:30 and Quincy is in his crib, falling asleep. I am sitting in the rocking chair by the window reading わかくさものがたり (pronounced Wakakusa Monogatari), more commonly known in English as Little Women. I am rusty, because I haven’t used Japanese regularly for a few years, and haven’t studied it on a regular basis for years more, but the words and the grammar are coming back to me more as I read to him. My bookshelves are full of Japanese children’s books from my time working at Sasuga, a now-defunct Japanese bookstore in Massachusetts. I read a variety of books in English and Japanese each night. My hope is for Quincy to have an earlier start and an easier time learning to speak a foreign language, and that these words will take him on adventures around the world. Learning to speak Japanese or any other foreign language will open new doors for him as he grows up. It did for me, and it does so for people all over the world every day.

My life has always been full of foreign languages. I started French when I was 10 years old, far later than foreign languages are often taught today, as part of Cultari, the gifted and talented program in my school. We wrote a play in French, which we videotaped. I was the thief, whose big heist was a huge bag full of buttons. I continued to study French throughout junior high and high school, but by that point it wasn’t a fun thing to do but a task with a purpose. For that, I blame my dad.

Dadisms. My dad was a champion of them. His favorite was “The more you learn the more you earn.” For my dad learning meant STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - even though the term was not in common use at the time. He rewarded all of my academic achievements, but lavished more praise on my science grades than my French or English ones. I studied hard and by the time I was looking for a part time job in high school, I was reasonably good at spoken French. Knowing French made it easier for me to get a job when I started my job search late one summer. At Burger King, I worked front cash and drive through, taking orders from the Quebecois, notorious in Maine for insisting we talk to them in French, down from Canada. I would come home from my shift exhilarated and talking about my interesting customers, always lingering on those who weren’t from around here. My dad wasn’t as happy as I was about foreigners. He always spoke rudely of people who even looked ethnic. His racism created a harsh dynamic that lasted for years, even as he acknowledged that learning languages was valuable.

Working at Burger King was a job that I never would have had without French, though it did have a downside. I spent the summer dreaming about explaining the menu, especially bagel sandwiches, in French. At the end of the summer, I could see how the Quebecois behaved was no different from that of the stereotypical America traveling abroad. I vowed I could do better.

Not every summer was spent explaining to French-speaking tourists the basics of fast food. I worked in a Greek restaurant on the beach one summer where the line cooks taught all of us the fine art of swearing in Greek. When not working, my mom and I would go to the local flea markets where I would pick up books in Esperanto or my coveted Portuguese to Portuguese dictionary. Each summer I learned a little more about French or Greek or whatever language had caught my fancy. This was the winding path that brought me to Japanese.

In the fall issue for Go! Magazine for Girls, there was a sidebar about pen pals. I was intrigued and already knew I wanted to go and just be somewhere else. Before long I had a list of pen pals from across the world, mostly in Europe. While not all of these people became regular correspondents, we all wrote a few times about life in our own countries in our artless self-centered way. My closest pen pal was Wei Go Feng from Shanghai, China. He was interested in science and English, which nicely matched up with my interests. He translated my name phonetically into Chinese, so I wanted to write part of my letters to him in his own language. An opportunity came up, and I registered for the Harvard University Summer School, a program where high school students could earn college credits alongside college and grad students.

That summer at Harvard was my first time away from home without adult supervision. My roommates included a young woman from Greece and two women from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I intended to learn Chinese, so I could write to my Chinese pen pal, but the class was full. Instead, I signed up for Japanese, a sister language to Chinese, and entered a class full of students of all ages and nationalities. I had never been around so many people from so many parts of the world before. I felt free and full of possibility. The class was 8 a.m. to noon, but the work didn’t stop there. I lived in the language lab, listening to recordings and watching videos. The undercurrent was global as we practiced languages from all over the world. Activities outside of the grueling class gave me glimpses of other places and peoples as well. My favorite mealtime companion studied Russian in the Ukraine. She would talk about her experiences in the Ukraine while salting the lemons for her tea, a culinary habit she picked up there.

I never really talked about my love of foreign languages with my friends and family, but somehow they knew. It showed up in the little things. My French teacher ran a campground during the summer. At the start of my final year, he gave me a book in Japanese on stress control that someone had left behind. It didn’t matter if my understanding was spotty. I carried that book around with my stack of dictionaries for weeks.

My final year of high school was full of such scenes as I received information from colleges all over the country. I would read the brochures and flip through my huge college guide underlining the different languages that I could learn. I would look up, “Did you know that I could learn Urdu at New York University?” or “I could learn all of the official languages of the U.N. at Middlebury!”

I applied early action to Harvard. I didn’t expect to get in, but it was a place where I could study everything I was interested in. My parents looked on, occasionally giving me the proverbial pat on the head, and a little more frequently saying, “Don’t you like America?” as if my love of foreign languages and cultures somehow meant I loved my own less. I chose Wellesley, where I studied Japanese with Torii-sensei, one of my professors from the Harvard Summer School. I didn’t ignore my own culture, but learning about Japan gave me a foil for my experiences in American geek culture, where I applied what I was learning to create a unique identity for myself.

After college, I worked a number of odd jobs, including doing website and database work for Sasuga Japanese Bookstore, a small shop specializing in Japanese imports. I wasn’t fluent enough to talk to the vendors on the phone and make sure we were getting the correct imports, but I was skilled enough to read books, write blurbs and categorize their inventory, which was almost exclusively in Japanese. I spent a sizeable portion of each paycheck on increasing my library of Japanese books either from the shop or public library book sales.

Even today, I use my skill in foreign languages on the job. Not all translation jobs can be done with the online machine translation sites, and often what is needed is a quick check on content, not the full translated text. Rather than pay a separate translation service, my coworkers sometimes come to me. It gives me a thrill of excitement being able to help out our global organization in a novel way, and reminds me that someday I might get to visit our Tokyo office.

Learning a foreign language, or at least making the attempt, gave me opportunities that I otherwise would not have had in my small hometown. Learning foreign languages like French and Japanese expanded more than just my earning potential. It allowed me to see past the borders of my town, state and country to the different peoples and cultures and integrate that information into my understanding of our culture in the United States. Writing to people in their native tongues helped me to build friendships by showing that I cared enough to meet them part way, so I wasn’t just another American expecting the entire world to know English. With foreign languages, even when you stay at home, you can travel the world.

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