What’s a second language worth? — Part 2

Japanese class in university wasn’t my first exposure to the language. I spent my preteen and teen years playing every Pokemon game I could lay my hands on. I watched any anime that was shown on a certain cartoon channel between the hours of 4 and 7; Dragon Ball Z, Rurouni Kenshin, Ronin Warriors, Inuyasha… the list is endless.

I also got my hands on songs. They were in Japanese, but some kind souls in the universe had written them out using the English alphabet. Thus, even though I could have been singing “I’m a stupid foreigner” in Japanese for all I knew, I learned the songs in their original languages. Because I could.

So going into the class I at least had that.

My first teacher was T-Sensei, a lady who reminded me very much of a slightly younger version of my grandmother. She had shoulder-length straight hair, a small belly, and a sense of humor about languages I think you need in order to go about learning them.

For those of you unaware, Japanese has three “alphabets” you need to learn in order to be even vaguely literate in the language- hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The first two “alphabets” are sets of 47 characters that are often used for things like particles or words borrowed from foreign languages. This is important because it ties into T-Sensei’s sense of humor.

We’re sitting in class after having learned all of the katakana, and T-Sensei is teaching us some words mostly by writing the English version on the board, then asking us to attempt to write them down ourselves. One such word was イギリス、 or Igirisu. (That means the UK, by the way.) Of course, none of us knew this at the time, so we were attempting things like writing out “England” or “The UK” as phonetically as possible. T-Sensei walked along and peered at our ideas, chuckling on occasion. Finally, she came to a classmate’s desk and peered at it for a long moment, then giggled.

“That’s wrong,” she said, sounding delighted. “It’s very cute, but it’s wrong.”

None of us begrudged her amusement, because she was just as willing to share her own weaknesses in languages with us. She liked to tell us of the pronunciation mistakes she often made, such as having trouble saying bug or bag distinctly, or walk and work…. and the confusion that ensued when she tried to correct herself.

So passed four semesters of language study; by the end of those two years I was able to read the first two alphabets passably, and we were starting to dip our toes into the murky waters of kanji. Summer was approaching, and I was wondering where to go next because something strange was happening.

Language was something to be endured when I was in public school (more on that later), with no foreseeable rewards. Spanish had taught me the days of the week, something I would never need while living in the States. German had taught me how to ask where the bathroom was- again, not very useful while at home, and therefore in my mind not particularly useful. Yet there I was listening to those songs I once memorized as a teenager. Sitting at my computer desk, eyes scanning the songs’ lyrics, I started to realize I was beginning to get the gist of what had once been goobledygook to me.

Could I understand the entire song? Of course not. Could I get the hidden meanings, the cultural references? Not on your life. But could I pick out a word here and there nearly every sentence, and start to get an idea of what was being said?


It reminded me of being a pre-K kidlet struggling through a small book for my own bedtime because my parents had told me I should be able to read it on my own by then. It had been hard; the letters on the page had felt like impossible puzzles to work out, but I had managed it.

“Cool,” I said to the song lyrics, and that was about when I received an email from my university about study abroad.

More on that later.

What’s a second language worth? — Part 1

In elementary school my parents signed me up for this after-class Spanish lesson that took place at least once a week. My memory on the whole thing is fairly hazy–I can’t remember if I asked them to sign me up, how long it was precisely, or even how often it was, but I can remember feeling baffled about the idea of foreign languages in general. I mean, what was the point of them? I already knew English, and learning how to understand that had been tough enough.

While I do recall enjoying the small get-together where we sang songs to learn the days of the week and whatnot in Spanish, I also can remember feeling relieved the day I left, with a little Spanish-English dictionary as a present from the teacher for completing the program. There, I learned another language, I don’t have to do that again.

Middle school arrived with all of its inherent confusion; along with the fear that I would never learn how to handle lockers came the looming prospect of having to learn a foreign language. Again. But I already did it, I thought to myself as the language teacher at my school came to speak to the class.

“You don’t have to learn one yet,” she’d told us, as we squirmed impatiently in our tiny desk-chair combination seats. “But we offer foreign languages starting from eighth grade, so if you want to get a jumpstart on learning something that’s the time!”

Pffft yeah right! I’ll worry about it when I have to take one in high school.

I did my research; at my particular high school (which had grades from 9-12, for reference), we could either do one language for three years, or two different languages for two years in order to graduate. I opted for the former, thinking it would be less work.

My adventures in German are worth another post entirely; let’s just say I was the smart-alec in the back of the class who, when she was called, would smugly answer, “Es tut mir leid, Ich weiss nicht. Ich kann nicht verstanden.*”

Yeah. Total jerk. I know.

Three years passed, and I spent my senior year in high school enjoying the fact that I was done. I was all set for graduation. Despite being a rude brat to the German teacher, particularly in junior year, I had somehow managed a B+ average. I never needed to worry about taking a foreign language class again.

Then college came.

“Oh, you’re going to be an English major? Here’s the list of the required general education courses you need,” I was told. Upon perusing the list, I was utterly dismayed to find…

“I need four semesters of a foreign language?!” I demanded.

The man explaining the requirements smiled, either not noticing my distress or not caring. “Well, of course if you studied an AP course in a language in high school, we can count that toward your requirement,” he said.

I sat there, defeated for a moment, mulling over my options. Then, grimly, I went to the course listing to see what my choices were.

In middle school, we had only been offered Spanish, perhaps French. In high school, our options were those two in addition to German, Latin, and American Sign Language. College offered more than double that in options, including Asian languages.

Well, rather than feeling stupid for taking a beginner class in a language I already studied, let’s try something new.

Enter Japanese class.


*I’m sorry I don’t know. I can’t understand.

Contradictory personality traits are fun, eh?

Hey baby, what’s your sign?

I’ve never taken horoscopes and the like that seriously, but I’ve found them fun to read nonetheless. Whoever comes up with these things are good at making them just general enough that there’s always something true in them, so that those who believe can happily do their thing and those who don’t, can likewise go about their business with their perspective of the world unchallenged.

That said, I am very much a Cancer. The crab is known for being a homebody who is close to family, has a special affiliation for water, and doesn’t react very well to change.

Pumpkin Bread
Lookit me cookin’ and stuff.

But at the same time, do you know what I love?


Gimmelwald cable car path
Gimmelwald, one of my favorite places I’ve been so thus far.

Following winding paths and discovering waterfalls; trying strange foods; sharing awkward (stressful) conversations with people with whom you don’t share a common language; learning as much as I can about different cultures.

As you can imagine, I have a very special relationship with traveling, and thus every time I decide on taking another trip, things go kind of like this:

Me: Okay, okay. How does Korea sound?
Brain: You can’t speak Korean.
Me: Yeah but Seoul is pretty English-friendly and we’ll be with a friend who can speak some of the language.
Brain: What if you get separated? You won’t have a cell phone.
Me: It’s cool they have wi-fi and-
Brain: No you’re not listening. What if you wind up all by yourself in a country where you can’t speak a single word of the language and piss someone off and can’t find your hostel and-
Me: Brain-
Brain: -and to top it all off you’ll miss your flight because by now your wallet will have disappeared somewhere along the line-
Me: Brain.
Brain: -and you’ll have to wash dishes for a living like one of those manga characters-
Me: Brain.
Brain: What?!
Me: Here’s an itinerary detailing where I’m going and how long I’ll be there. I’m emailing it to friends so the cavalry can come find us if something goes wrong. We cool?
Brain: …
Me: …
Brain: …Tell me more about Korea.

Welcome to the What

My first trip abroad was a very quiet, anticlimactic trip to Canada with my grandparents when I was a preteen. We went over the border for three or four days, and the most exciting part of it was that I got a passport to enter the country with. If you asked me now what we did, what cities we went to, and what I thought about the experience, the most you’d get is a shrug and an “Ehh… it was all right?”

Fast forward ten plus years.

I was in university, and on a whim I’d decided to study Japanese for the past four semesters to fulfill my language requirement. I was sitting in class contemplating what to do with my summer vacation as at that point I was on the verge of becoming a Junior, with a capital J. And Juniors were expected to do important, career-building things like get internships, go to job fairs, work full-time during the summer. None of these things appealed to me; I already had two part-time jobs, so I saw no point in pursuing an additional or new one. Nor was I interested in seeking a career-related internship because while I didn’t know yet what I was doing with my life, peeking at the available internships for my degree resulted in me recoiling from the computer screen and immediately switching tabs to Youtube.

It was then my Japanese teacher suggested, “We’re doing a summer intensive course in Osaka, Japan this summer; won’t you come?”

I bypassed a lot of the typical spring and summer vacation trips college kids are Expected to go on; I have yet to go to Cancun in Mexico, and beyond the trip with my grandparents I have yet to properly explore Canada (sorry Canada, I’ll fix that someday).

Can I tell you more about my second trip abroad than I can my first? Boy howdy. But that’s a story for another day.

The point of it all was, though, that I was introduced to several situations that made me very uncomfortable in a set period of time, and stepping into that world felt like I was altering myself, going from being a spectator in my own life to a participant.

Several trips have taken place since then, both abroad and domestically in my home country. If I were watching the world change around me like one watches a movie, traveling feels like switching out an old VHS tape to a brand new Blu-ray disc.

That is what I would like to share with you all through this blog.

Welcome to the What.