How Languages Shaped My Life
Published 16 February 2020 in personal
Here is how languages shaped my life.
i am bilingual in spanish and english. i have lived in the united states since i was almost three years old, but i was born an only child in cuba to cuban parents. by the age of two i had already been speaking spanish, even correcting peoples’ grammar. my mom told me that one time she laughed when someone said they were going to “eat” ice cream (comer helado), and i told them they were going to in fact “drink” ice cream (tomar helado), which is the correct term in spanish.
in the united states, i turned three living with my two parents in the spacious basement of an older lady’s house. i don’t think i had any playmates for a while, so i spoke spanish to my parents and learned english by watching cartoons on tv. when i got a little older, relatives would also sometimes bring me books written in english and spanish, so i was able to practice reading and writing in spanish in my free time.
unfortunately, because i didn’t have people my own age to talk to from the age of three until i started school at five, all i knew of english was what i learned from watching cartoons. there were a lot of words and phrases that i didn’t know or understand. it’s surprising looking back how kindergartners were making dirty jokes, and i had to ask a boy what the word “naked” meant.
to make matters worse, i wasn’t able to go to preschool, so even my interactions with other students were awkward or inappropriate. around the time i was just starting school i had somehow learned the word “hell” and how to curse, but i didn’t yet know that it was inappropriate. of course when i used the word repeatedly on my first day on random classmates i offended everyone and was rebuked by teachers.
however, once i began regularly interacting with my classmates in school and began reading more difficult material, i was able to bring my english skills up to their same level and even excelled at it in high school. when it came to spanish, i was still speaking it to my parents and most relatives exclusively. by the time i was in elementary school, i didn’t feel like english conveyed the same kind of familial affection that spanish did. however, it’s also possible that our pride as cubans was too strong, and we didn’t want to risk me forgetting my mother tongue, so my parents never pushed me to speak english to them. now we realize that, had i spoken english to them all this time, they would basically be fluent in it.
naturally, the mandatory spanish classes that we have in american education from kindergarten through 8th grade were a breeze for me. around 7th or 8th grade, however, i started learning about world war two in my own time. i had heard the fantastic 2009 remake of the song 99 luftballons by nena for the first time on tv, and my twelve year old self was riveted by the strange language the song was sung in that i had never heard before.
it turned out the song was sung mostly in german, but some parts of the 2009 remake were in french. the usage of multiple languages in the song was also fascinating to me. then, one day i found a little gray and orange paperback in the middle school library. it was the german-english hippocrene practical dictionary. i looked through the pages in awe, and i checked out the book. i was hooked.
back in internet land, i went down a rabbit hole that led me to other german bands, of which my favorite became rammstein. i listened to their songs on youtube in user-created lyrics videos and began learning rapidly. the fact that the language seemed to be so belittled by people online because of world war two only drew me more to it. the common opinion that i found in english on the internet was that german is too harsh and that they preferred other languages like french that were “softer”. but, i thought the music proved that german could be just as beautiful and was just as worthy of respect as other languages.
i kept studying german on my own time using lyrics videos, chatrooms, the old freerice.com, the now sadly defunct livemocha, and my trusty hippocrene dictionary that i took to school every day. studying history, i found that the axis powers during world war two included germany, italy, and japan, so i decided to take on italian and japanese as well. i already liked japanese since i started watching anime around the time i was getting into german. the web tv series hetalia: axis powers certainly helped fuel my obsession a little bit.
i purchased so many books and software related to these three languages. some i can remember include the berlitz german cd collection and phrase book, the larousse italian-english pocket dictionary, the random house japanese-english dictionary, der weg zum lesen by van horn vail and kimberly sparks, binder grammar pamphlets in the three languages from barnes & noble, and this obscure software that taught japanese using the word association method. i also took advantage of free mobile apps and the 100 grammar points on thejapanesepage.com. i even made lyrics videos to songs that i translated myself from english to other languages and planned to write a romeo and juliet-style novel about a german soldier and an italian jew with dialogue in different languages. i also impulse-bought the oxford new russian dictionary because for a little bit i wanted to try learning russian, too. i was researching communism, and i thought it was fascinating how the seemingly insignificant little country where i was born had such a strong tie to the once-powerful soviet union.
looking back, i probably went a little too hard. after all, i barely spoke to anyone, much less about languages. i carried my books around at school, studying from them whenever i could, even though by this point they added quite a bit of weight to my bag and drew strange looks from my classmates. but, they also gave me some much-needed confidence. some kids thought it was cool, and adults praised my efforts and started noticing my potential. for the first time in my life i became known as something more than just the quiet awkward girl who was bullied for her looks. i became the school languages girl.
when i finally made it to high school, things changed, though. there was now a lot more work on my plate. by the time we finally got to learn about world war two and the cold war my junior year, i was over it.
for language courses i only had two choices: spanish or french. none of these interested me, but i decided to go with french since i already knew spanish and preferred a challenge over an easy “a”.
i soon found myself enjoying french, and i excelled at it since it’s a romance language like spanish. to help in my studies, i purchased merriam-webster’s french-english dictionary. only two years of language were required at my school, but i went ahead and did all four years and got into the french honor society my junior year. one of my favorite activities was writing and acting out skits in french in front of the class. it was fun to be a character i was not.
that year my experience with languages made me make a decision that would ultimately decide what i would end up doing as a career in the most unexpected way.
when choosing my courses, i spotted an elective called visual basic. i read the description and learned that what was taught was a language, but a different kind of language than what i knew: a programming language. curious, i picked it. that first semester of junior year i learned for the very first time how to do computer programming at the age of 16. the rest is history.
when i began dedicating my free time to coding languages instead, i didn’t have any time left for german, italian, or japanese. when applying to university, i tested highest in french on the entrance exams and would be able to take one advanced course to meet the language requirement for the honors program. my freshman year of university i took intensive advanced grammar, a course that was a lot more stressful for me because i was in a completely new kind of learning environment. i passed the course, but i wouldn’t pursue french anymore and later decided it would be best for me not to spend anymore time on the honors program. in retrospect i wish i would have gone the german route. i failed to follow my heart back then.
at 22 i now have my first full-time job and a lot more free time than i am used to, so i decided i want to get back into learning my favorite languages from my childhood. german is at the top of my list, followed by japanese. watching anime has always been a favorite pastime of mine, and recently i have become very interested in learning about japan again. third on my list is polish, a language i had never considered learning before. the explanation is simple: the young man i fell in love with is half polish.
i’m so fortunate that the love of my life is just as into languages as i am, and he motivates me to continue trying to learn. long ago i almost stopped believing that i would find a love who shares the same obsession with german as me and who could make me feel okay about being different and save me from my loneliness – but i did find him.
i downloaded duolingo and just dug up my dusty old dictionaries. i’m ready to follow my heart again.