Learning to use a language is not the only reason for studying that language although language teachers for the most part seem to think that way. I think differently. My view, of course, is one of an outsider, someone who does not teach languages. But I consider proficiency only a secondary benefit of studying languages.

My native language is Japanese. When I was ten or so, I was sent to be tutored in French. The teacher was my sister's friend, and I thought she was an exceptionally beautiful woman although in hindsight, when I count the years, she must have not been twenty yet. Shortly after that, a French brother in a missionary school taught me English with a thick French accent. After arriving in California as a student, I didn't feel I needed to take French; I could read passably. So, I took Spanish for a year and a half. This was at a Junior College in Santa Rosa. I also took Latin from a woman who taught philosophy; there were only two of us in class, an older man who was studying on a GI bill and myself. This was also for only one year.

At the University of California in Berkeley, I explored Russian. This was also for a year, and it was the least successful of my linguistic efforts until then. Having decided to change the major from architecture to art history, I taught myself Italian, as Italian Renaissance looked like the special area I was heading for. I was quickly proficient enough to read scholarly articles in Italian. I also had to read German; I taught myself to read and, in part for that reason, never learned to pronounce the language well enough. French was always much more comfortable. At Harvard, again of necessity, I taught myself to read Dutch when I took a seminar in Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting. Living in Italy to work on my dissertation improved my Italian immensely.

After arriving in Swarthmore to teach here, I had an opportunity to learn Portuguese from a Brazillian student in exchange for a very special tutorial in filmmaking. Later I sat in Chinese classes, two years altogether; I had the advantage of knowing most of the Chinese characters. Years later, in order to be able to hear the dialogues in Ingmar Bergman's films I took a private lesson in Swedish from the native-born Swedish wife of a colleague in biology. I went to the point of being able to read Swedish literature with some effort. Then, in the course of time, I had a smattering of Danish (on the basis of Swedish) and Catalan (on the basis of Spanish); and I made a feeble effort in Maori when I was in New Zealand and for a while after I came back. Now, for something a little bit different, I am undertaking Korean -- more than a daunting task. But to say that I studied fourteen languages is misstating the case a bit; many of them are related languages. So, strictly speaking, I had Romance languages, Germanic languages, Japanese, Chinese, and now Korean. I don't know Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, nor Hindu, and very little of Slavic languages.

In all these efforts that I consider rather serious than half-hearted, my achievement in proficiency is slim to say the least. But I feel comfortable enough to think that on arriving in any of the countries in which these languages are used, I'd be ready to refuel and revive whatever I had learned and then build on it for improvement. Having earned little proficiency in most of the languages I had studied, I can nevertheless claim that I learned to think differently from those who had no or no more than foreign language in school.

For one, we gain a deeper understanding of our own native language when we pick up another language. Any foreign language, from the very start of learning process, sets a contrast with our own and illuminates it; and if we allow ourselves to reflect on it we come to realize how peculiar whatever is familiar to us might seem to others who speak and think in another language. This is a lesson in multiculturalism; it gives us the clearest and best glimpse into the world of another culture. Having to struggle to learn a foreign language deepens our understanding of another culture, however peculiar it may first appear.

Then, the process of learning a language with conscious effort, in contrast to the more spontaneous one in which we learn our native language, instills in us a special sense of awe and humility about learning. This is much more obvious, in my view, in language learning than any other learning effort, except that of learning to play a musical instrument to which language acquisition is closely related since it starts with the training of the ear. I, for one, experience a tremendous thrill when I test a few phrases on the native speakers when abroad and find myself actually understood and, an even greater thrill, when I find myself catching some of the conversations that reach my ear. The result of learning, of having come to know something that I had not previously known, is immediate and tangibly clear. Language acquisition has a way of reminding us that learning anything requires respect, not only for whoever teaches it to you, but also, and more importantly, for the subject itself. We learn to use words in our own language with greater care and respect.

But, above all, learning a foreign language helps sharpen our thinking mind. It is generally accepted that mathematics teaches us to think logically and precisely, and few contest its importance for all developing minds, whether a student plans to be a mathematician or make use of it in her or his career as a physicist, statistician, economist, or whatever. Language study teaches us to think precisely, too. But because languages are not structurally precise, its logic is fuzzy. So, if mathematics can be said to teach abstract thinking, learning languages might be said to promote poetic thinking, the kind of thinking that generates precision by fine-tuning its fuzzy logic and overcoming its fuzziness.

If language learning is viewed narrowly in terms of proficiency and its success measured by its practical application, as for foreign travels or future careers in trade or diplomacy, we will be missing, I believe, its most profound benefit, and that is learning to think poetically. The infinite variety of forms in which a sentence might end in Korean to define with precision the range of emotions and subtle aura of ritual rightness in the interpersonal relationship between the interlocutors is truly remarkable. The Japanese defines her or his self-presentation by choosing one of some twenty ways of saying "I".



T. Kaori Kitao, 03.03.00


see also
Japanese "I"

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