There are a number of people in the world that are capable of speaking more than one language. However, in the U.S. it is not nearly as common or sought. Given that English is the primary language used throughout the world, it is not seen as such a desirable skill. Instead, people decide to focus their talents and time in other areas.
Although language is not stressed in American schools, it is implemented into the curriculum. Of course, there are always the standard English classes required in high school that study old English, or how to create a lengthy paper. In addition, French, Spanish, or German language classes are being taught at younger and younger ages. I personally began learning Spanish when I was eleven years old. The sad part is, I can’t speak more than a few sentences in Spanish and each sentence takes a minute or so to remember. The problem isn’t that the language teaching system in our schools is poor, but rather we have little or no interest in these other languages.
When students ask, “What can I do if I know Spanish?”, teachers may often respond, “You can go to Mexico/Spain!”. However, the reality of the matter is: after high school, who really wants to go to Mexico for an extended period of time? People have different goals and ambitions that turn language into somewhat of a hobby rather than a career. If you plan to use Spanish someday, you may want to have a background in business before mastering the language completely. Otherwise, you’ll be finding yourself in a career completely unrelated to what you expected. Language is something that helps to experience the world and explore other cultures, but it is difficult to use solely language as a pathway in life. This is not meant to discourage learning a foreign language, but instead redirect encouragement towards a different mindset.
Finding an interest in a foreign language is the utmost important thing when learning any new language. Following high school, I had no idea I would someday travel to Japan, let alone live here for a few years. I had a friend that helped me to develop my interest when I was still an undecided third year college student. I had not known at the time that I was waiting for this interest to come around, but once it did I never looked back.
Despite the fact that learning Japanese is hands down the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, I find each day that I am quite passionate about it. There are constant setbacks and plenty of barriers to overcome, and with each step studying becomes even more difficult. After understanding one concept, the next is twice as hard, but that sort of challenge is something that drives a person. Finding the motivation to study for something is a daily battle, but once you find that motivation, once you find that meaning for studying so hard your life becomes less stressful.
Over the next six months I’ll be studying for a test that I possibly will not pass. As a result, I will be studying constantly, whether I’m in my room working on new grammar, or out meeting people and fine tuning my speaking skills, or even going to the free classes offered at city hall.
Today I attended one of the free classes offered at city hall. It helped me to realize how important studying is. Another thing I noticed is that out of all the students, I was the only American. That out of 50-70 students, I was the only ‘westerner’. The only significance I could derive from this was that I have an advantage over all of these students. The reason being, every student was interested in me. They felt like they had something to gain from speaking with me. I was constantly being approached by people from Vietnam, Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. Even the teachers at the school seem to be extra interested in me. (I mean, it is pretty obvious that I’m different. With as pale as I am, I truly stick out like a sore thumb). And each time, the first questions they asked were, “Where are you from? How old are you?”, as if my name were irrelevant at first. Anyway, I find myself in a quite advantageous situation. Not only will I be able to study Japanese intensively, but also I have the opportunity to learn about other cultures.
It’s kind of funny when speaking to someone from Vietnam and using Japanese as a common language. I never thought I’d be in a position to do so, but here I am. My favorite part about today had to have been when they were looking to interview people for the local paper, and blatantly chose people from a variety of racial backgrounds. After they had interviewed students from Taiwan and China, they were not so interested in interviewing the Korean student as much as Indonesian and Malaysian students. Japan can be extremely racist at times, but more than anything they are racially ignorant. Only 2% of the population in Japan is foreign so given their experience with other cultures is limited, it is much easier to shrug off anything that could be labeled as offensive.
For what it’s worth, learning a second language is an amazing experience. The ends certainly justify the means. For all the people that grow up speaking multiple languages, I am envious and jealous of your experience. Although, those people will never know the feeling that I have after having a conversation with someone, in Japanese, with a complete understanding of everything that was said.