I remember being asked about why I had this passion for learning languages, and I kinda regretted not giving a complete answer, or a well-thought response, and having watched this enthusiast’s story, I think it’s about time I write about it.
Having spent a considerable portion of my early childhood in the French province of Bordeaux, I grew up learning three languages, namely, English, Chinese and French (for all those preschool activities I have well forgotten). Reading The Hungry Caterpillar in French and English, I grew a rather decent foundation in these two languages, but not so for Chinese, which were taught exclusively by my parents back then. Returning to Singapore, I found it arduous catching up to the curriculum even at the very start, and very naturally, Chinese became my worst-performing subject, and the lack of French in primary school meant that that language easily and quickly fell into disuse and into the obscurity of my mind.
The change came in 2009, when there was this optional Third Language thingy (remember that PSLE posting exercise) that my parents highly encouraged I take up. As a challenge, as an experience, or as a leap into the unknown from the languages we are so familiar with when communicating. I was quite well spoilt for choice, having the option to pursue French, German, Japanese, Arabic, Indonesian or Malay. My first linguistic dilemma, so to speak. Interested in something new, I decided on my first choice being German, second Arabic and third Malay.
I was quite surprised to have gotten Arabic, a language vastly unrelated to those I was familiar with. Finding people who spoke it was also a challenge since back then I used no social media of any kind. It was a lot to cover in these 4 years to come, a new writing system, new system of grammar and a lexicon vastly foreign to my ears. The first couple years were manageable, being able to write and show competency in basic sentences. Little did I know how badly I had been lagging behind in vocabulary, and I had to learn about it the hard way. Year 3 came, a new school, a steeper learning curve which required us to write essays with word limits higher than my vocabulary bank at that time. I only had my Collins pocket dictionary and BBC Arabic (which mainly showed news of the aftermath of the Arab spring, the Syrian civil war in its early stages and regional conflicts like these). Finding people who speak it here was a wild goose chase too, outside of MOELC, no one I found could speak the language well enough to teach me some more words.
Word list after word list, from fruits and vegetables to crime and punishment, conjugation after conjugation from the simple present tense to participles, this was all the preparation I could do before the end of the 4 years of Arabic. An arduous journey well worth the time and effort. Despite the rather discouragingly low results I received for Year3 and prelims, I was quite glad to have passed it as an O level subject. It was 2014. ‘What’s next?’ I thought. I was done with Chinese and Arabic as examinable languages, but there was this inner calling to revisit a language I had abandoned for so long — French, what I would say was my actual third language.
With ‘Le nouveau taxi’ in my bag, I began revisiting French at Alliance Française. I had a comfortable learning curve once again, and learnt something I was once rather familiar with, and most importantly, I was free from the shackles of being required to sit for a standardised exam after all the lessons. My, the experience was well worth. I knew that French has an optional DELF / DALF to assess the proficiency in French for adults and students, but I felt that languages are more than just standardised tests, examinations and grades. They are representative of a culture or cultures, albeit the underappreciated side of them. And so, I was off, once again, to pursue languages at my own pace, with my own goals for each language, from conversing to translating, and most importantly, without the need to sit for an examination to “assess” fluency and proficiency.
Looking back at my past travels, I often regret how I did not learn the local language back then to understand at least some parts of their menus, signs, etc, but these experiences helped to shape my pursuit for more languages, and an undying desire to explore the world’s cultures from a linguistic perspective. Finding sisu in Finnish, hygge in Danish and Norwegian, these linguistic endeavours have formed a part of my life, and it is more than just and interest or a hobby. My background, my decision on studying a third language, and the desire to learn more about language. These are what contributed and propelled my growing passion for languages.
In 2018, I learnt about a language reflecting the Portuguese Eurasian culture, and a teacher’s efforts to revitalise it, I shared interesting bits of languages in Africa and the Indo-European family, I learnt the basics of the most complex writing system in the world, and I learnt the sounds of a language long separated from its Scandinavian cousins, marooned on an island northwest of Ireland. These processes carried on into 2019, and now we are in 2020. With a desire to attain recognised qualifications in Russian and Japanese, I started looking back at these languages, but more in depth than what I went through before. Writing about these experiences, sharing writing systems, and other things about language on this blog breathed new life onto my presence in this platform. Looking back at these experiences, I am glad that I made that decision to pursue language learning as a hobby, interest and a challenge.
I see no reason to stop.
This post was first written in 2018, in response to a video I watched posted by NativLang. It discussed his inspirations for creating a language-focused channel, and his drive to explore features of languages. From his experiences, I felt the need to share my story as well, and so I wrote this post to reflect on what I have gone through in these years exposed to a whole diverse set of languages. The NativLang YouTube channel is a nice language-focused channel to check out, and it condenses a lot of features of languages into comprehensive animated videos. It is by far one of the best informative channels on that platform, so I would recommend checking it out.
Also, I am curious, if you have any stories to share about your language learning experiences or processes, do post them in the comments.