I have an at-least-passing familiarity with four foreign languages. They are, in order that I started to learn them: Spanish, German, Mandarin, and Italian. Eventually I want to be proficient in at least Spanish and Mandarin and hope to pick up enough of several other languages, particularly Czech, since I am of Czech ancestry, to get along in the countries where those languages are spoken by the time I travel there.
I think my first impulse to learn a foreign language was probably French. We were visiting my cousin and her daughter (who was just a baby at the time, which means that I was probably around nine or ten) and we went to the pool of her apartment complex. A young woman there was speaking French and I was fascinated.
Then, my sophomore year of high school, I had an opening for an elective and I wanted to take German. My mom strong-armed me into taking Spanish instead. During the rest of my high school experience, I ended up taking three years of Spanish. My senior year I finally had an extra opening and got to take German I in addition to Spanish III. I took to German like the proverbial duck to water and after my mom had a chance to meet the young adults in the German III class (who would have been my classmates, had she allowed me to take German) my mom said that she should have let me take German after all. The kids in my Spanish III class were largely the ones whose parents were forcing them to take a foreign language, but the ones in the German III class were creative, and fun, and seemed more motivated. One went on to become a German professor on the college level.
I have to admit that Spanish has been useful. Being as close to Mexico as we are, we get Mexican nationals who don’t speak English in the store from time to time and I can help them myself, rather than having to track down a Spanish-speaker to help me. I am not good enough at Spanish yet to be approved to speak to pharmacy patients about their medications, but I hope to get that good someday. There won’t be any extra money in it, but it will look good on my resume if I can say that I am that proficient.
My son and I started to learn Italian because, frankly, it was the one language that I could find a lot of resources for. We started to learn Italian in the summer of 2013, and in the summer of 2014, we traveled to Italy. My son was mostly able to say things like “Grazie” and “Buongiorno,” but I got along pretty well. I was able to do basic transactions in Italian, even if we did eventually have to resort to English in a lot of cases.
The reason I am writing about this now is because of my Mandarin studies. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m coming along, and in two upcoming posts — one on a planned trip to China in 2021 and my post on the July 2014 issue of National Geographic, I mention my progress in learning Mandarin. In the National Geographic article, I am nearly certain that I was able to understand the name of one of the chambers, but never once does the writer give us any idea what the Chinese corresponds to in English. I am still wrestling with the name of one of the other chambers. Probably most people won’t even notice, but I know just enough Mandarin to know how much I don’t know yet, and so for me, this was really frustrating.
(originally posted, in a slightly different form, on July 2, 2015)