swimming in languages

I’ve been swimming in languages all my life.

My grandparents speak Taiwanese.  So I grew up bilingual in Mandarin and Taiwanese.  Unfortunately, Taiwanese government  in my youth had a big push for speaking only the “official” language in school; so you’re not encouraged to speak it.  My parents spoke to me in Mandarin even though they would speak to each other in Taiwanese.  As an adult, I can mostly understand, but after 3-5 sentences in, I start substituting Mandarin.  The good thing about Taiwanese is that it’s still related to Chinese so it’s harder to forget.

Fast forward to 5th grade, where I picked up English.  I’ve always felt like because I started at a funky time in English, where my Chinese was not high (academic) enough to help learn English, and my English is not good enough for writing well.  I remember every essay in high school college and college were painful experiences where I holed up for days to try and crank out every sentence.   Let’s just say my SAT score was high because of my math.  But it is good enough to get me by day to day, write blog posts, graduate from college, etc.

First semester of high school, I decided to take French because of a book I read by Judith Krantz.  That first semester, I got a C.  My first C, ever.  Nothing like getting a C in class to spur you to take French for the next 8 years!  I ended up in AP French, which enabled me to skip the first 2 years of college French.  Not a good thing actually.  Because at least college tried to get you to speak French by forcing you into language labs.  Since I skipped all that, the end result for me was a lot of reading French literature and after 8 years and a minor in French (because I didn’t want to write a thesis in French), I still don’t speak the language.

Since my dream of a French major in college was dashed, I switched over to Computer Science.  You may think that is totally different field, technical vs. liberal arts, but really, it’s all about Programming Languages (C, Pascal, Java, PHP, etc.), basically learning the language of computers.

A few years after college, I got bored at having nothing to do after work and decided to take TESL classes at UC Extension.  That is really all about teaching a second language.  I had a super good time learning about how first and second languages are acquired.  But alas, I never finished my certificate because I didn’t have time to do a practicum, where you have to teach a class for a semester.

After TESL, it was onto Japanese, because I’d been watching a lot of Japanese dramas.  Two semesters at UC Extension, 1 semester at some city college, then another few more classes at a Japanese Saturday school that runs night classes for adults.  I got far enough where I started learning grammar, which is sometimes similar in concept to Chinese, and other times not.  But I had to stop because at that level, I could not really go on without picking up a lot of new vocabulary, but I had such a hard time at it, being just terrible at memorizing and learning new words.

However, watching Chinese sub-titled Japanese dramas for 2 more years after stopping my Japanese class really made a difference.  Though I still can’t converse, I can understand phrases and can even distinguish between different dialects of Japanese.  I learned a few things from this.  1)  Knowing Mandarin and Taiwanese really helps with learning Japanese and 2) watching a lot of TV with subtitles really help when you’re learning a second language.

Sadly, my obsession with Japanese dramas waned and moved onto Korean dramas.  Technically I speak no Korean whatsoever because I’ve never taken classes and have no idea how the language works other than the fact that it is super close to Japanese (I hear Koreans learn Japanese really fast) and that a lot of its sounds are in-between sounds (for English speakers) but that someone who understands Taiwanese could get because Taiwanese is like that too.  I recently learned this is because Taiwanese is closer to classical Chinese which influenced Japanese and Korean.

Having watched Chinese and English subtitled Korean dramas for at least 4-5 years, I have learned once again 1) watching a lot of TV with subtitles really help when you’re learning a second language and 2) Mandarin and Taiwanese really helps with learning Korean!  I couldn’t guess what someone is saying in a Korean drama like I can in a Japanese drama without subtitles.  But I’ve watched enough to pick up phrases and can hear differences in dialects.  To me, it’s really neat how much listening can help you learn the speaking/listening part of a language.  It is akin to how children learn their first language.


Back to my Chinese.  I never went to Saturday school, but spoke with my parents only in Chinese and acted as a translator often.  The house had only Chinese TV, Chinese newspapers, Chinese movies, and Chinese music.  My parents didn’t try to teach me the language, but surrounded us with it because they consumed entertainment in Chinese.  I speak English with my siblings and Chinese with my parents.   For a few years I wrote to my cousin in Taiwan but I’ve forgotten how to write most of my Chinese because I don’t use it.  However, because I read a lot of Chinese books growing up, thanks to our local library, and watched a lot of TV and listened to a lot of Chinese music, my Chinese is much stronger than my siblings.  It is due to this experience that my goal for my kids are to be able to read at at least a 4th grade level.  I’m hoping that if they have a love of reading in Chinese before they discover English, they can keep at it.

I switched to speaking Mandarin all time with my children once I had kids, such that when I spoke English to Thumper for the first time, she asked that I don’t do that because I sound weird.  In the last 8 years, I have noticed that a lot of my Mandarin is coming back to me.  I always knew a lot of vocabulary and have no difficulty conversing, but now there is an ease to speaking in Chinese and a lot of more advanced vocabularies come back.  To me this means that if there is enough reading and listening in Chinese, though most of this language is in “receiving mode”, one day you can pull it back out when you need to.


As for Montessori, I think I like Montessori with Chinese because a lot of their philosophy for even teaching English is so unlike conventional schooling.  Whether or not it works remains to be seen.  But even if I don’t teach exactly how English is taught, I like the philosophy itself of observing the child, setting up the proper environment, and guide the child to learn.  Because language is a funny thing.  Everyone speaks one, most people think they can teach one even without a TESL or linguistics background.  And you cannot even say that the ones who have learned the training know better how to teach it than those who haven’t.   Though I do have to say knowing the theory does help.

I feel like all of my language learning has really influenced how I view the acquisition of language.  It isn’t scientific at all.  I pretty much don’t like how schools teach languages because it’s so focused on reading/writing, often it doesn’t help you communicate with someone you meet.  And to me that is really the fun of languages.  To stand in an elevator and eavesdrop someone speaking in French or Japanese and understand what someone is saying.   To be able to communicate with people from other languages because I speak English, which is such an international language.

Reading and writing is important, especially academically.  And I understand how, when you’re learning a language as a foreign language, how hard it is to have the opportunity to practice listening and speaking.  However, I’m at a unique position where I speak the language I want to teach my children, so I need to take advantage of that and teach differently.

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