Learning languages as a multilungual person

I haven’t been anywhere interesting in so long that I’m starting to struggle with finding appropriate cover photos for this blog. Cry with me T_T

Guess who’s back! Yay, me! So I ambitiously promised a post during the last few days of Nanowrimo and I have to be honest. After penning my 50326 words, I was in no mood to get behind the keyboard and start typing again. I am so exhausted of words that this is, in fact, a miracle. Anyway, since promises where made, here I am, showing up for that thing I said I’d talk about: Language! Today I just want to set up the landscape of my language acquiring adventures so that it will be easier to understand my points of reference as I share with you my journey of learning Japanese.

So for those that don’t know, I was raised in a multi-cultural home. My father is Zulu and my mother is Xhosa. Though my mother never really spoke Xhosa while raising us (see the old school Handbook of South African Marriage circa pre 80s), we kind of came to know the language by osmosis because of going to church (we mostly sang the Xhosa version of the hymns) and also absorbing it from her when she slipped up. She would always get lost in Xhosa when telling us stories from her childhood. I remember thinking how interesting it was that she could smoothly switch between languages when telling these stories. Each character from her childhood spoke a different language and she would stay true to the story by acting out each part in the character’s tongue. Even though she was raised Xhosa, her father’s family was Tswana and her connections to them and the environment that she grew up in meant she also knew that language fluently too. So she would weave these narratives and jump from language to language and I would find myself asking her questions about what this word meant or what that saying meant. This was probably the first time I appreciated the intricacies of language. This was also the first time I realised that the weight of each language’s words and sayings was highly dependent on the culture. 

Fast forward a few years and my parents decided to do something rather silly. They enrolled me in an Afrikaans nursery school where I was probably one of three children who didn’t speak Afrikaans at home, or even at all. I admit, I don’t remember exactly how I learnt the language back then, but as a child of 6 years old, I remember getting teased by my brothers because I was so engulfed by the language that I started speaking it at home with them, much to their irritation (again see the South African handbook about post Apartheid [pre too I guess?] feelings towards Afrikaans). This was the first time where I found myself actually using the language that I was acquiring alongside my home languages [Pause: So English is a special case with me cause I feel like it fell alongside the languages I call “home languages”. It was on tv as far back as I can remember and as soon as I could string a few letters together (5/6 years old), I was reading my dad’s English books. I honestly can’t say I remember a time when I didn’t know English]. I understood Xhosa, Tswana and Sotho but I couldn’t really speak them at that stage. The rhythm and the flows were above my level of proficiency. 

Years passed, I enrolled in English school, my Afrikaans began to fall away. Luckily I managed to retain enough to cruise through my mandatory 10 years in Afrikaans class. I pegged my success of maintaining a high average in this class on the fond memories I had from my time growing up speaking the language. I had no negative mental block towards it, so my brain deemed it appropriate to keep it. 

At some point during all of this, my brother married a Tswana woman from Mafikeng in the North-West Province. If you know anything about the Tswana people of South Africa, the North-West Province is where they bake them, so I was getting my first introduction to the language in its purest form. I soon realised that whatever my mother had been speaking during her storytimes, was a bit off from this language. She had never had the accent quite right. It wasn’t all bad. I had a solid foundation in vocabulary but culture is what I knew was lacking, which left me confused most of the time when trying to have conversations with my sister-in-law. Eventually, I decided to ask her to please teach me her language. It was an impractical ask as I only saw her a few times a month at most, but I was determined to learn. 

This method of learning was of course not very effective but it did make our relationship better because we were both being intentional about communicating. I grew up, improved slightly, was able to hobble along verbally and I could even understand when reading too. I moved to Pretoria for varsity and my listening and speaking improved almost tenfold. Reason being that Pretoria is basically Tswana and Pedi land, two very similar but very different languages. I was finally hearing enough of the language to improve my speaking abilities. I got so good that I could hold full conversations with my sister-in-law when I would visit her at her sowing shop in town. 

A few years after this, I realised that I was really interested in moving to Japan. The people and their way of life really intrigued me, but the language was just so different from anything I’d ever heard before. Unfortunately, having done my research, I knew language was going to be the number one factor responsible for how the doors would present themselves to me in this foreign land. 

So I set off to learn Japanese, with no external motivation or help from a native speaker. It was the hardest exercise in language acquisition that I’ve ever been a part of, resulting in very minuscule progress. The problem is that I’m not a real linguist. A linguist is a person who is interested and intrigued by languages and how they work. Personally, language can only hold my attention for so long before I find myself losing interest and going back to what I know. Luckily I knew myself enough to know what my strengths are. I’m a polyglot so I pick up languages out of necessity and use. I had to rearrange my life in such a way that I would find it necessary for me to learn and use the language. So here I am in Japan, stumbling through the uncomfortable initial stages of acquiring this new language. It’s fun and horrible at the same time. There’s much to learn and to be mindful of, but I will persevere.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this weeks read. It’s a bit all over the place I know but hopefully you’ll understand why I needed to get this fodder out of the way to appropriately prepare for the next few posts. Anyway, chat soon.


I'm a writer with some stuff on my mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s