Becoming Bilingual: My Story
Like many people from the States, I, unfortunately, grew up monolingual. However, in university, I became bilingual, then multilingual. Although some studies have shown that one’s age doesn’t fully determine one’s ability to fully acquire a second language (Redmond 1993), based on the educational system in multilingual countries, it has been my observation that younger second-language learners tend to be more successful bilingually.
Nevertheless, regardless of your age, you can still become bi- or multilingual. However, other factors have to be at optimal level, such as motivation, quality of exposure, social circumstances, etc., (Redmond 1993). In other words, you have to be determined to learn the language. You must study and use the language almost daily with a qualified instructor or good book that emphasizes speaking, writing, reading, and listening skills. And if possible, you should travel to the country or countries that speak this language.
HOW I STARTED AND TRANSITIONED TO BECOME BILINGUAL
I first learned Spanish in high school but learned very little upon entering community/junior college. I recalled only knowing animal sounds (e.g., a rooster sound is “kikirikí” J) and simple greetings. Apparently, I knew more than I thought, though, because my placement test put me in Spanish 102. After that semester, I took the Spanish Honors course. By that time I had fallen in love with the Spanish language, its music, and its culture. I watched TV shows, telenovelas (soap operas) and listened to music in Spanish (Selena was my first favorite singer!). I willingly studied grammar and pronunciation diligently. The more I learned Spanish, the more I learned about my native language as well as about the “world” outside of the States . . . . and it was addicting!
After two years at my community college, I transferred to university with an intent to do a joint major in psychology and Spanish. During my first office visit, conducted solely in Spanish, with the Chair of the Spanish Department, I was allowed to skip the next Spanish course, moving myself to junior and senior level courses!
PSICOLOGÍA Y ESPAÑOL/PSYCHOLOGY AND SPANISH
While I enjoyed my psychology courses, I was happiest when studying Spanish. You see, when I was 9, I had promised myself that as an adult, I would become a psychologist. This juvenile goal was the driving force behind my university major. In fact, I even went as far as to study for Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy. I was unhappy in that program. So, I changed my major to Post-Secondary Administration and Student Affairs in order to work with Spanish-speaking students and parents in the university setting. I wrote my master’s thesis and presented at a major conference about this very topic.
At the conference, I discussed the usual tenets involved with working in this student population. I also included how to correctly spell (i.e., with the required accent marks and tildes) and pronounce common names in Spanish (e.g., Hernández, Marisol, Rodríguez, Ángel, etc.) to show respect to students and their relatives with the goal of making them feel welcomed and respected. It was an interesting presentation, and a few representatives wanted me to present this topic at their colleges.
Something one audience member said stood out to me, though. She said that after presenting the facts and statistics, I came alive once I talked about the correct pronunciation and spelling of Latino names. Her comment really pierced my heart because I knew it was true. My heart did not lie with psychology or even student affairs. It lay with the Spanish language and all the various facets of it, such as the grammar, phonology, orthography, history, culture, etc.
ESPAÑOL E PORTUGUÊS/SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE
Shortly after that realization, I applied for graduate school to study for another master’s degree and an eventual PhD in Spanish Linguistics. Once there, I knew I was home. Living and breathing linguistics was a perfect fit. Even the social parties my colleagues and I had were filled with linguistic lingo and grammar rules (I still love grammar no matter how much my students bemoan it haha). While in graduate school, I became multilingual. I learned Portuguese by attending my Brazilian friends’ Portuguese courses (for free!) and by befriending one of the teachers (we still talk to each other!). My friend and I were also neighbors, so we chatted (and even argued) for the most part in Portuguese every day.
[BTW, once you can argue in a language, consider yourself fluent enough to survive! Why? Because any time you’re feeling extreme emotions (including when you use the ATM/Cash MachineJ), you tend to go to your most native language(s) to fully express yourself. If you’re able to express yourself clearly (enough) in another language while arguing and understand the other person’s replies, you’ve definitely become comfortable in the language!]
FIRST TRIP TO EUROPE
Then in 2008, I went to Europe for the first time…
Going to Europe changed my life. I should be more specific. Going to Paris and northern Italy changed my life. Although Madrid, Spain was beautiful, I was moved beyond words in France and Italy. I fell in love instantly and became obsessed with finding ways to live in either of those countries. On the plane ride from Paris to Florence, I studied Italian for the first time. Thanks to Spanish, I was able to easily learn how to ask directions and to say other useful phrases in Italian, which was exciting.
ITALIANO ET FRANÇAIS/ITALIAN AND FRENCH
After spending time in Florence, Pisa, and Venice, I had fallen so in love with Italy that by the time I’d finished graduate school, I was ready to move to Italy for good. So after learning Portuguese, I sat in Italian courses (also for free) and took a French Literature course. Then finally on the July 2, 2012, I moved to southern Italy – Reggio Calabria – and became more fluent in the Italian language. I stayed there for a total of 6 months and met life-long friends there. These lovely friendships have helped me keep up my speaking and writing skills to this present day.
Now I live in Germany and resultantly, I have been learning my fifth language – German. This language is by far the hardest language I’ve learned to speak (Korean was the hardest I learned to read and write, but I can’t call it one of my languages). Even so, I welcome German’s difficult characteristics such as three genders and various (in)definite articles, four grammatical cases, and its Latin-like word order, which are parts of the reasons I enjoy speaking the language. Germany’s varied culture, complex history, and my overly generous students reinforce my desire to learn the language.
LINGUSTIC GOALS FOR THE FUTURE
In the future, I would like to perfect my German and French skills. Then I would like to learn Japanese. I’m not aiming to be fluent; I just want to understand anime without subtitles :). I wish I could learn Arabic, Russian, Greek, and more Korean, but I think I’ll focus on German for now.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
What’s your story? Do you speak another language? If so, what is it and why/how did you learn it? If not, do you want to learn another language? Which one? How do you plan to make it happen?!