Over the years part of my journey has been to learn some basics of the languages in the countries where I have worked. My schoolboy French was useful when I spent time in the south of France. It surprises me to think that for a time I was even reading from a French Bible.
Living in East Asia gave me an appetite to try and learn a bit of Mandarin and did do some basic night classes. When living in Japan my wife and I had a convenient arrangement with Atsuko, a Japanese lady. She would come to our home in the morning and until mid-morning coffee break she taught us some basic conversational Japanese. After coffee we spoke to her in English. No money changed hands and the setup suited us all well. Helped us get our food from the store, buy petrol etc. I did try some more formal Japanese study by trying to memorise and write ‘kanji’ characters. Think I managed 100 or so. Each character needs memorising as to their different meanings in different contexts. They also have to be written in a certain stroke order, otherwise they don’t look right. Really an art form. When you need about 2,000 to read a newspaper it seemed way beyond my abilities. Add on to that the 2 syllabic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) of 47 characters. It amazes me that Japanese children learn to read and write. However I did persist for a while. Even went to Tokyo to take a Government graded exam. It was the lowest level and I failed.
How did we function during our time in Japan? Am so thankful for the help of Kazunari who helped me as a translator and became my eyes and ears. Ever patient and cheerful with me. One way we earned a living was teaching English to Japanese. Customers ranged from 3 year old kindergarten kids sent by their parents to octogenarian veterans of the 2nd World War. Their thirst for English was astonishing.
Also spent a year in what at the time was West Germany. Dabbled a bit with some basic, conversational German but never really progressed. Despite spending 2 years in the Caribbean and Central America I never even attempted to learn Spanish.
Marrying a Swede one language which has been a consistent backdrop has been Swedish. I remember initially reading textbooks and practicing basic conversation with my mother-in-law who was very patient with my mistakes. Like the other languages mentioned textbook and formal learning classes only got me so far.
For nearly 2 years my wife and I lived in Sweden and during that time I worked in a factory. Hardly anyone spoke to me in English. Although it was often a lonely experience my understanding slowly grew. Many months of silently observing, not saying much. Mainly listening. My participation in a fast moving group conversation would often be out of step. By the time I understood what had been said the conversation had moved on to another topic. Laughter or bemusement would follow if I tried to contribute at that point. All very humbling. One to one conversation was a bit more forgiving. All in all the whole experience was like becoming a little child again. Limited vocabulary also meant I expressed myself in limited, childlike ways.
This immersive experience was strengthened by the factory piping out music and chat all day from a popular Swedish radio station. Elisabeth’s family only ever spoke to me in Swedish. This was even though most had quite good English. I am grateful for this.
With more fluency came appreciation and respect for the culture and it’s people. A rich, learning experience. I started to read books in Swedish and gain insight into another worldview. The Anglo-American English speaking one I grew up in had dominated my cultural perspective despite travelling a lot. I started to discover Swedish Christian writers who have blessed me in a truly, refreshing way. This has added to my understanding of the depth and wisdom of God at work through other cultures.
To learn Swedish took time and effort. For me the journey has been humbling, frustrating and at times isolating. It was worthwhile and has taken me out of my own small world. New and refreshing perspectives on life and relationships have opened up. More practically I can converse with my relatives.
I didn’t get far in French, German, Japanese or Chinese. Despite this multi-lingual experience don’t think I have any particular aptitude in languages. Nowadays if you were to speak to me in these tongues it would seem as if I know next to nothing. One of the things in life that doesn’t seem to add up. The time, effort and any progress in languages seem to be lost if not used over time. This even applies to my Swedish, the one language other than English I have some proficiency in. It gets rusty until a visit to Sweden gives some badly needed oil and maintenance to my brain cells. Despite forgetting much the process keeps opening up your heart and mind to think and express yourself.
Most of us that have English as our first language seem to struggle acquiring another tongue. To us the widespread use of English worldwide is a two edged sword. You are falsely lulled into thinking you can make yourself understood with all kinds of people. Paradoxically you become less likely to understand the people and culture. Being bi-lingual (or more) is a blessing worth celebrating. I might discover some truth about myself that would never be realised by remaining in the silo of my own language.
If you are not bi-lingual and don’t mind becoming a child again then a new language might be just the tonic!
**Pages 16,17, "A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese" (Tuttle, 1990)