My Four Languages
Author: James Smyth
Editor: Ji Shou-hui, Lizzie Chang
Although I’ve always been drawn to language, there weren’t many opportunities to interact with foreign cultures in my town, so my original dream was to be a writer: it didn’t matter what the topic was, I just wanted to spend my life writing. When I studied abroad in Madrid my junior year of college, I finally discovered my talent for studying foreign languages. That has been my focus ever since. From then until now, I’ve studied a year of Spanish and a year of Chinese at college, taught English in Japan while studying Japanese for two years, and moved to Taipei to further improve my Chinese.
I think the most difficult of these three languages is Japanese. Why? Japanese and English grammar are practically opposites. If a person can read or listen to Japanese, that doesn’t signify he can write or speak at the same level. Because Chinese and Japanese share written characters, when I’m studying Chinese, my Japanese also improves, but that doesn’t mean hanzi and kanji are the same. When Japanese pronunciation of characters resembles Chinese, that doesn’t mean modern Mandarin: it means Middle Chinese (think Middle English). Besides that, using the same character to represent several different words of varying syllable counts is one of Japanese’s special features. For example, there are eight different pronunciations of 下: ka (目下), ge (下旬), shita, sa(geru/garu), kuda(ru/saru), oro(su), ori(ru), and shimo. You have to know the context to read the character correctly. Classical Chinese is very deep, and it seems like there is a limitless amount of proverbs and expressions to learn, but Japanese writers not only use their own language’s vocabulary and expressions but also appropriate Chinese; hence, formal compositions in both languages are very complex.
Although Spanish is very different from Asian languages and relatively similar to English, I sometimes confuse my Spanish with my Chinese or Japanese. I unconsciously divide languages into two categories: my mother tongue and “foreign languages.” I’ve lived abroad for several years but can’t break my English habits; I have to continuously practice every other language so I won’t make mistakes.
According to our textbook, language is a tool for expressing thought. I agree with this principle. Understanding one’s neighbor’s facial expressions or way of thinking won’t guarantee one comprehends every word he says, of course, but such wisdom is a big help. Successfully learning a language doesn’t just mean learning pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary; understanding a people’s thought and etiquette also streamlines one’s study.