Chapter 9: The reluctant language learner

Studying Spanish in Cincinnati

I was first exposed to foreign language study as a high school student in the 1980s. In retrospect, I must admit that at the time I really didn’t see the point. My hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio had a negligible immigrant population. There was no Chinatown or Little Havana. The two major non-English-speaking immigrant groups in the Cincinnati area—the Germans and the Italians—had arrived in the 19th century, and had long since assimilated into the general population. German language schools had once thrived in Cincinnati, but these fell out of favor amid the anti-German sentiments of World War I. The German schools were closed during the war, and never reopened.

As a teenager, my world was completely monolingual. About half of the kids at the school I attended had either German or Italian last names—but no one in their families had actually spoken these languages for generations. There was a minor trend for kids with German last names who had a strong sense of heritage to fulfill their high school language requirement with two years of German. My peers who had Italian last names did not have this option; only French, German, and Spanish were offered at my high school.

At this stage in my life, I had barely been out of Ohio; any chances for foreign travel were still light years in the future. I took First Year Spanish and received reasonably good grades. However, I considered Spanish to be a purely academic pursuit—somewhat similar to solving quadratic equations or learning to identify iambic pentameters.

The following year, I met someone who forever changed my fundamental ideas about foreign languages. My Second Year Spanish teacher was Miss Kramer, a no-nonsense educator who took her subject very seriously. To our surprise, she also took us seriously. Miss Kramer expected 14- to 17-year-olds to comport themselves like adults, and to learn like adults. (Most of us were still quite content to be kids.)

On the first day of class Ms. Kramer sized us up like a Marine drill sergeant looking over a barracks full of new recruits. She matter-of-factly informed us of her goal for the year: We were to become “functional in Spanish” by the following May. And Miss Kramer suggested that the easy ride we had enjoyed in First Year Spanish had come to an end. “I will pace the class,” she said. “But I will not work at a pace that insults your intelligence.” Such words are Teacherese for “expect to work your tails off.”

From the beginning, I knew that Miss Kramer’s methodology was going to be radically different from that of the First Year Spanish teacher, whose lessons had kept us safely tethered to the textbook. Miss Kramer brought Spanish out of the textbook and into the real world. “This is how they say it in Mexico versus in South America,” Miss Kramer would explain… “This word is only used in Spain.” For the first time, I became aware that Spanish was more than an academic subject—it was actually a tool that I could use to communicate with millions of people around the world.

Miss Kramer focused on the specific language needed to accomplish practical, everyday tasks. “Here are the words you need to open a bank account in a Spanish-speaking country…This is what you would say if you wanted to exchange dollars for pesos…”  And she wanted us to be able to read the local newspapers in the Spanish-speaking world. Class would frequently open with an announcement like, “Today we are going to analyze the language in an editorial from El Pais that discusses Latin American government.”

We were constantly tested on our ability to function in Spanish. Rather than rely solely on watered-down, fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice tests, Miss Kramer made us translate newspaper articles, decipher recordings of radio broadcasts, and write extensive essays in Spanish. I don’t know if I was truly “functional” by the time Second Year Spanish broke for summer vacation, but I had absorbed a significant chunk of the language.

One day Miss Kramer said something that has stuck with me for the past twenty years. We were reading a Spanish newspaper article, and she asked a student for an on-the-spot translation of a particular sentence.

The student looked at the sentence, and shifted uncomfortably. He briefly gazed around the room for help, then threw himself on the mercy of Miss Kramer.

“I don’t know what se redactan los códigos means,” he admitted.

Miss Kramer smiled. “It means, ‘the codes of laws are drawn up.’” She paused, and put her copy of the newspaper article down on her desk. She stepped to the front of the room.

“Now class, you’ll remember the discussions we have had about vocabulary.”

There were a few groans from the room. Ms. Kramer had a habit of assigning us copious amounts of vocabulary to learn.

“The reason that you have to learn so much vocabulary is simple: If you don’t know the vocabulary, you’ll never get past square one in the real world.”

These words became one of my fundamental laws of language learning. Whenever I begin to learn a new language, I start with a heavy dose of vocabulary. But enough on that topic for now: we’ll be talking a lot more about vocabulary a bit later.

  Miss Kramer had a unique talent for motivating kids to learn Spanish. However, my progress came to a standstill after I left her classroom. I made a few desultory attempts at expanding my knowledge of the language, but these forays into independent study were short-lived. My enjoyment of Spanish could not overcome one overwhelming fact: a teenager living in the Cincinnati of the mid-1980s had no practical need to speak Spanish.

When I entered college, I took more Spanish to fulfill the undergraduate language requirement, and continued to make incremental progress. After I fulfilled my language requirement, I did not sign up for any more Spanish courses. That might have been the end of my career as a language learner. However, a series of incidents during my second and third years of college inspired me to make languages a lifelong pursuit.

How Steven Spielberg got me Interested in Japanese

One evening in 1988, I was sitting in a movie theater with Donna L., watching Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a movie about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during the early days of World War II. Earlier in the evening, Donna had been telling me about one of the classes she had enrolled in for the current semester: Japanese. Northern Kentucky University had long offered classes in Spanish, French, and German, but Japanese had been added only that year.   

I was curious about the class, and Donna humored me by teaching me a few elementary Japanese phrases in the car as we drove to the theater. By the time the movie started, the only one I remembered was “arigatoo”—the Japanese word for “thank you.”

At some point during movie, the hero—a young British boy separated from his family in the chaos of the Japanese invasion—used the phrase, “arigatoo”—and I—low and behold—understood what it meant.

Donna gleefully poked my arm. “You see,” she said. “That means ‘thank you.’

The movie contained a lot more Japanese which I could of course not even begin to understand, but the language nonetheless asserted a certain hold on me.  Whereas French, Spanish, and German were plain vanilla subjects that could be acquired in a high school in Ohio, Japanese was exotic. Japanese was something that you learned to go off and have adventures in the distant capitals of the Far East.

With the whimsical approach to the future that is rarely possible past the age of twenty-three or so, I began to consider enrolling in Japanese classes during the following fall semester. At the same time, I started to investigate some other Asian languages. The first of these was Korean. My father had been stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War era. When I was a child, he had taught me a few Korean phrases that he had picked up during his stay, and the strange staccato words had stuck with me over the years. The pictures that he brought back of Korea’s temples and hilly landscapes struck me as alien and irresistibly intriguing. 

But before I settled on Korean or Japanese, I would have to find out about the most widely spoken Asian language, Chinese. (It also turns out that Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, as measured by the number of speakers.) A student in my Biology class happened to be from China. One day I struck up a conversation with her and mentioned that I was interested in learning more about the Chinese language. She was kind enough to draw a few Chinese characters for me on a piece of notebook paper.

The first character she drew looked like a parallelogram bisected by a vertical line. “This character means ‘middle,’” She said. “You pronounce it as ‘zhong.’” Then she drew another, more complicated character. This one looked vaguely like a distorted square with a latticework grid placed inside it.

“This one means ‘kingdom,’ or ‘country.’ It’s pronounced guo. Together they form the word for China—Zhongguo.” I noticed that her voice was making a special pitch on each syllable, but I didn’t think to ask her about it. I looked down at the word for “China,” written authentically in Chinese. Could I really learn this stuff? 

My desire to learn an Asian language had now reached critical mass. I continued to page through the materials available in the Asian languages section of the campus bookstore. I was still window-shopping at this point, but I was sure that I would learn an Asian language. This was at the height of the “Japanese management techniques” craze of the late 1980s. The Japanese language was a hot field of study at this time, and Japanese books occupied vast tracts of shelf space. There were also quite a few books for learning Chinese, and a smattering of materials for students of Korean and Vietnamese. I was like a honeymooner trying to decide between Hawaii, Rome, and the Bahamas.

As chance would have it, I had recently met an older undergraduate named Randy, who spent four years as a Chinese translator for the U.S. Navy before entering college. Prior to assuming his duty post, Randy had studied Chinese for more than a year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California.

“Chinese phonetics is based on a tonal system,” Randy explained one morning in the university center. “If you vary your tone, the meaning of the word changes.” As he demonstrated a few examples, it was difficult for me to even recognize that each word had a unique pronunciation. Randy’s pitching, indistinct syllables were totally outside my paradigm of what language was supposed to be. Japanese, with its monotone pronunciation, and clearly identifiable words like arigatoo seemed far more within my reach.

Shortly after my conversation in the university center with Randy, I made the decision to tackle Japanese. The university did not yet offer Chinese classes, and the language seemed like too high of a hurdle without formal instruction. I passed on Korean and Vietnamese for the same reasons. There were no classes to be found in these more junior Asian languages, and the self-study offerings in the campus bookstore were too sparse.

Getting Hooked on Japanese

I would not be eligible to take a Japanese language class through the university until the following September, when the next course sequence began. It was March, and I decided that I would not wait for the fall semester. I purchased Hugo’s Japanese in Three Months from the bookstore. This book did not teach the Japanese written language, but it provided a solid introduction to Japanese grammar and basic vocabulary using a transliterated (Romanized) version of the language.

I knew that I would have to go back and learn the Japanese writing system later, but for the time being I was content to rely on the crutch of the Latin alphabet. I spent the next several months absorbing as much as I could from Japanese in Three Months. I also bought a tourist-oriented Japanese cassette course. This did not teach much grammar, but it gave me an idea of how Japanese was pronounced. So far, I had not had any contact with a real live person who actually spoke Japanese.

Then, in the summer of that year, I had an opportunity to visit Los Angeles. Compared to Cincinnati, L.A. was a language lover’s paradise. Entire sections of the city were dominated by shop signs and billboards written in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and languages that I could not even recognize. There were foreign-language radio stations. Every shopping mall and restaurant was occupied by at least one group of people who were speaking something other than English.

I was waiting for my companions to arrive in the hotel lobby one evening when a tour group walked in. The labels on their suitcases—JTB—“Japan Travel Bureau”—identified them as visitors from Japan. The group of about thirty tourists began milling about the lobby, some queuing at the check-in counter. I listened intently to the bits of conversation that I could hear. I could understand a portion of what I overheard, but most of it was incomprehensible. However, I was certain that the tourists were speaking Japanese.

A woman of about thirty-five years of age plopped down on the sofa beside me. She looked over and smiled, as if to apologize for disturbing me. On an impulse, I smiled back and blurted out, “Konbanwa”—“Good Evening.”

Konbanwa,” she replied. She looked at me wide-eyed, as if I had just recited her name, birth date, and passport number. But I knew that greetings were easy. I was determined to leverage the little Japanese I knew into a halfway respectable conversation.

Nihon no doko kara kimashita ka?” I asked unevenly, taking my Japanese for its first test drive. I wondered if she would understand me.

Tookyoo kara kimashita.” She said—“I come from Tokyo”. Apparently I had strung my words together correctly, or at least close enough to get the point across. 

I had successfully used a foreign language for the first time in the real world, and I was determined to keep going. We fumbled through another ten minutes or so of conversation, limited by my minimal grasp of Japanese. The woman—whose name turned out to be Fumiko—apparently recognized that I was a beginner in her language, and therefore spoke slowly and simply. However, two or three times she departed from the small confines of my vocabulary. I could only shrug and smile apologetically. As Miss Kramer had said, You can’t get past square one in the real world if you don’t know the vocabulary.

The first time you successfully use a foreign language in a spontaneous situation is a major milestone. This provides a peculiar sense of satisfaction—similar to what you felt as a child the first time you rode a bike without the training wheels. Your first experience—like mine—will probably be short and simple. However, you need that first small shred of empirical evidence to prove to yourself that you really can learn to communicate in a foreign language.

After the trip to Los Angeles, I was hooked. Before the end of the summer, Japanese in Three Months had become dog-eared, and some of the pages were starting to fall out. But when I enrolled in Japanese 101 in September, I had a significant head start over the other students.

I attended Japanese language classes during my last two years of college. Then I graduated, and I was forced to continue my studies without the aid of a structured classroom environment. Although I learned a lot of Japanese in the two years of classes, I actually learned a lot more Japanese during my first two years as a working adult. As we cover language learning strategies in the subsequent chapters, I will give you the laundry list of self-teaching techniques that I have used over the years, and some suggestions regarding how these methods can complement each other. 

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