A Linguist’s Journey

The Egypt Game was written in 1967. It’s about a group of kids in a small town who discover the world of Ancient Egypt, and invent an imaginary game based around the deities. I read it when I was probably about 8 or 9, so in 1997-98. As a result, I became obsessed with Ancient Egypt, particularly with hieroglyphics. I decided to invent my own alphabet, and I’d write my class notes in it. Shortly after, I thought to make my own dictionary for my own invented language. Before long, I had a stack of notebook paper full of it.

Studies show that prior to puberty, children have an incredible amount of neuroplasticity; that is, their brains are like sponges. Your average adult can learn about 5 news words a day, if that. A child can retain up to 12 a day. Crazy, right? Humans innate language capability is something that has fascinated linguists since forever, and I’m no exception (side note: do your kids a favor and shower them in foreign languages while they are still spongy!).

Language has always been fascinating to me. Since that early age, I have been absolutely charmed by different cultures, and their languages in particular. For whatever reason, I always loved the idea of chattering away in different languages (I already talk a lot, imagine speaking 10 languages? I could talk forever). As I grew up, I watched as many foreign movies as possible, and became even more delighted at the possibility of learning other languages. In high school, I took French and Spanish, and dabbled in others on my free time. A little Japanese, a bit of Swedish, a sprinkle of Portuguese. I could say yes, no, and hello in at least 7 more. In college, I went on to get my degree in French, and wish I would’ve quadruple-majored in all the languages the uni had to offer. When I moved to South Korea, I was so eager initially to learn Korean, because yay another one!

During my TEFL training, I learned a lot about language acquisition. As a learner of other languages myself, this proved very useful knowledge, both as a teacher and student. Korean was the first non-romance language I ever tackled, and to be honest, even after living there, it has been my biggest challenge.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not for lack of trying. When I got to Korea, at first I was so excited to learn. I like to think that after all of my language study, I have a pretty good ears for phonics and accents, and it’s something I pride myself on. However, despite me going to Korean class like 3 times a week, literally nobody could understand me. I would try to speak to people, and I always got a bunch of confused looks. On the one hand, I’d say one sentence and people would be like “oh your Korean is so good!” but then I’d ask a stranger for directions and they would look at me like I just threatened their first born. This happened so often that I eventually became so disheartened that I gave up on advancing my studies. I can still read and write, and have some phrases in my pocket, but not much else.

Then came Persian. I decided to take an intensive Persian course last summer, because why not? Arizona State offers the CLI (Critical Languages Institute) every summer, and I never had a chance to do it while I was in school. I had the time, and I got the funding, so I went for it, as I had no desire to learn the other languages being offered. Persian, while challenging, proved to be a much need segue into non-romance languages. It has a different alphabet, yet the structure is not unlike Spanish and French. Some tricky pronunciation aside, I really loved it, and discovered a very simply structured yet highly nuanced language.

So now what? I find myself itching to learn something new. Sometimes you get bogged down with regular life and I’ve never had much discipline (my DuoLingo is constantly screaming at me). But really, I’m a school nerd. It’s not enough for me to read the news or listen to music.

I am a pen and paper freak. Honestly, the amount of notebooks and stationery I own is on another level. I need to write things down to remember them. I love books, I love notes, I love reference. I can’t learn without them. But all of that aside, I’m finding my biggest challenge is this: setting realistic goals.

One of the biggest issues I find with self-study in language is that when you have no goals, you’re not really sure where you’re going with that study. Why are you doing it? Are you just trying to learn the alphabet? Do you want to be “fluent”? Carry on a conversation? Business purposes? Or maybe just travel purposes to get around? Without those goals, it’s easy to buckle under “well I have to learn all of this because FLUENCY?!?! I don’t have the time!” You can’t prioritize that way. If you want to get to an advanced level in Japanese, and just be at a basic conversational level in Indonesian, the amount of study time you will spend on each will vary greatly. It’s good to have those goals clearly laid out. So what are mine?

The Basics

  1. French (already speak this but I’m rusty so) – High Advanced/Fluent
  2. Persian – low-high advanced
  3. Korean – high advanced
  4. Portuguese – high advanced
  5. Arabic (Lebanese) – high advanced
  6. American Sign Language – high intermediate
  7. Russian – high intermediate
  8. Bulgarian – high intermediate
  9. Swedish – high intermediate
  10. Hindi – low intermediate
  11. Japanese – low intermediate
  12. Swahili – low intermediate
  13. Chinese – low intermediate

When I was a kid, I said I wanted to learn 20 languages. I mean, why not? It’s not like there’s a limited amount of space in the brain. I almost feel like I am collecting languages in a way. These days, I’ll settle for like 10, maybe 8 (my favorite number).

I’ve already got the bare bones, if not full meat of 4 of those. Of course I pick the heavy hitters right? Russian, Chinese, Arabic haha. But every language has a pattern, and once you discover the pattern, it’s fairly simple from there.

Stick around a few years for one of those articles about me that’s like “Woman speaks 15 languages!” Turn up.

Tchau,

Sam

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