What languages do you speak?

06 Aug 2016

I wrote this post over 4 years ago, on 3 March 2012. Let’s revisit this:

How many languages do I speak?

Let me see…

I am a native speaker of Southern Californian English. My household speaks only English. My mother was born and raised in East Pennsylvania, in a household where both Toisanese and English were spoken. Her older brother spoke only Toisanese until he went to school. My mother’s mother was born in Washington D.C., and still speaks to her husband in Toisanese. My grandfather orders food in Chinese. My father was born in California. His household spoke only Chinese.

When I was a child I made up a language with my cousin. It was a reverse initialism language: words were spelled out using their letters as the first letter of the word. ‘Hi’ was “Hat’s Island.”

In seventh grade, I picked Latin as my elective. We all giggled because ‘six’ was “sex”. In eighth grade we had the option to take Spanish as a pick-up class to high school, but I forewent it for geometry.

In high school, from freshman to junior year I took Japanese. It was my first real introduction to a ‘weird’ language, and I really liked the writing system. Lots of memories in Japanese class. The high school offered fourth year Japanese (and native classes) but for some reason I didn’t enroll in it, instead picking a TA position in the Japanese class. To get credit, I had to tutor first-year students and grade the native speakers’ papers (?!). I am really glad I chose this, because it gave me an introduction to SOV language and kanji.

In college, the first class I enrolled in was Russian. Not for any particular reason, I just had to fill out the units. I entered college as a business-economics major and later switched to Global Studies (political science with a heavy focus on globalization). I did not switch to linguistics until the end of my second year.

Over my career at UCLA, I took 31 language courses. I took 16 in Russian. The flagship classes (102 series) were a few of the most difficult classes I’ve ever taken. I also studied in Moscow for the summer after my second year. I took 8 classes in Croatian. I took the first year of Mandarin, 3 classes, and a single quarter of Thai and French, and my final quarter I took two tutorial (one-on-one) classes in Hungarian.

I’ve written papers on Korean, Japanese, Icelandic, Tee (Niger-Congo), Mandarin, Vietnamese, Russian, Croatian, and Thai.

I can read the following scripts, but not necessarily make any sense out of them: Armenian, Hiragana and Katakana (Japanese), Cyrillic (Russian, Serbian, etc.), Batak, Georgian, about 1000 (1e-23% of total) Hanzi. I used to know Hangul and the basics of Arabic, but they’ve been neglected. I’m currently working on Thai.

In speaking, I am only natively proficient in English. I speak Russian reasonably well and can keep up with news anchors, but my speech is not idiomatic. I have been told “[you are] the only American who can really communicate in Russian [that I have ever met]” and “you are on your way to mastering it”. I know the ins and outs of Croatian but never got enough speaking practice to be functional, I have been told “You are fantastic, you are Croatian” wrt my pronunciation. I did after all win that $15,000 scholarship specifically to study Croatian. I’m working on Thai independently, since I’m no longer taking classes.

And the white elephant in the room… I don’t speak nor do I plan to ever really study any Chinese. To be completely honest, I do have a certain resentment toward it as a language that people expect me to speak based on my appearance. Even if I did grow up in a Chinese-speaking household it would not be Mandarin, it would be Cantonese. And no matter how good I get at it I will forever be judged as incompetent because it’s non-native. I went through the first two books of Integrated Chinese. That’s how much I know.

So yeah. That’s how many languages I speak.

Since then, I’ve completed my degree at Eastern Michigan, and I’m now starting my 4th (!) year at UW. I lambasted the very question that starts this post in my TEDx talk (which I will never stop talking about!), but its worth answering, as a professional in language.

The answer hasn’t changed much. I don’t keep up my Russian as much as I should, although I had a brief stint tutoring a bright high schooler, which was a nice experience. That’s my second experience teaching language, after the English Conversation group I led in undergrad, and first experience teaching one of my L2s.

My funding for the 2015-16 year came in the form of a FLAS to study Finnish, which was pretty neat. So I spent the whole year learning first-year Finnish. It was a nice experience; I’ve always wanted to learn the language and even talked to the Scandinavian department in undergrad about setting up a teleconference with Berkeley’s classes. So I got to check that off my list.

And finally, after however many years of digging my heels in, I took an intro Spanish course this summer, to keep active during a month of downtime. It was loads of fun, the Castillian instructor was amazing, and I got a good foundation.

This coming year? I’m not sure if I’ll spend any time on language learning. But we’ll see what I can do on the side.

This inaugurates the new blog. This will be purely linguistics-based blogging from now on, and personal entries are kept to my personal website.