The How and Why of When I Learn Languages

When I was a little girl, my parents took me out of the United States.  First, we went to England. There was no foreign language spoken in England. It was all English. However, it was different from the English in America, but I was so young it didn’t matter.  I spoke like the English. For all intents and purposes, I became English. I didn’t even think about it. It just happened. When I left England, my dad wasn’t happy that I sounded English and not American, but I didn’t know what an American was supposed to sound like. In Morocco, I had an American teacher at school, so I copied the way she spoke to try to sound American.  Also, in Morocco, I began learning a foreign language at school, French.

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I loved it! I thought it was fun.  I carried on easy conversations in French and sang French songs. I did it all by ear.  I never saw French written in a book until my French teacher who was also a missionary gave me a tract in French about Jesus, but I only understood part of it because he had only taught us to a certain point. I knew nothing about grammar, and he hadn’t taught me how to pronounce the words on the page.  When  I meet French speakers now, they mistakenly think initially that I speak French, but I have to stop them when they get to far into it because my French is very limited. However, it gave me a good basis for other languages that I learned.

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When I was in middle school, in America, my older sister was taking Spanish, and I was intrigued!  I wanted to study Spanish too. I had enjoyed French, but they told me I was too young to study Spanish.  In my junior high in California, they were going to offer German, but I couldn’t take it until the next year, but we moved away, so I didn’t get to study German. My initial introduction in elementary school to learning French was so positive that I had learned that learning a foreign language was fun, and I wanted to do it more, but in America, I had to wait until I was in high school.

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In high school in Oklahoma, I was finally able to take Spanish. They had French lessons too, but I couldn’t take them both.  I had been so intrigued with my sister’s Spanish, that I chose Spanish.  It paid off while I was still in high school because the Foreign Language Club took a trip to Mexico, and I was translating for all the students who had studied French instead of Spanish. I was able to get better prices on things I wanted to buy than the other kids because I spoke Spanish.  In Spanish 2, we no longer studied grammar, but read out loud and discussed what we were reading.  I had not studied many of the verb tenses, but I was slowly figuring them out by just reading the texts the teacher provided. I got the Spanish award in my high school. I was really enjoying Spanish.  French was not left completely behind, though. My best friend had taken French, and she got me a French pen pal, and my pen pal wrote to me in French, and I had to decipher it, and I wrote to her in English, and she had to decipher what I wrote. It was good for me.

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When I went to the university, I really thought about majoring in Spanish because I loved it so much. However, initially, I was an Accounting major because my dad was pushing me to make big money, and I had received the award for Accounting in my high school too. In fact, I received the award for most of the subjects I studied in high school for having the highest grade in every class, and it made choosing a major difficult. College was harder than high school. I saw my first C in college.  My grades were not as high as in high school.

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While in college, I was asked to go to Japan. They were offering scholarships to study at Ibaraki Christian University, but not the money for the plane tickets.  It was a missions effort.  I had never done mission work, and I had never thought of myself as a missionary.  I had known a missionary in Morocco, my French teacher, and I thought he was an extremely spiritual, good man, and I never felt like I could measure up to him.  I told the people who offered me the chance to go to Japan that I wasn’t good enough.  They told me, “You don’t have to be good enough. You just have to want to do it.”  I sure enough wanted to do it, so they showed me how to get the rest of the money I needed, and I went to Japan as an exchange student/missionary helper.  In my Missions classes, they had taught me that I must study the language where I am living. They said even if I never learn to speak, if I make an effort, the people appreciate it.

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I took Japanese classes in Japan.  I learned Japanese both from the class and the books, but also from my Japanese friends.  I learned to carry on conversations in Japanese, and it was fun. My Japanese teacher couldn’t speak English.  I ran into her at a gospel meeting in Hitachi. I was following along with everything that was being said and even looking the scriptures up in the Japanese Bible, and she saw me. She was thrilled to death!  She offered me a ride home in her car and spoke to me in Japanese all the way home. It was not easy, but we had a long conversation in Japanese.  After that, she always talked my ear off in Japanese.  When people learned that I could speak Japanese, they spoke and spoke and spoke to me in Japanese.  They were thrilled to be able to speak to one of the American students in Japanese.

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When I was in Japanese 2, one of the missionaries came to my boarding house and told the girls and the woman in charge of us that I was supposed to be the translator, and I really didn’t feel good enough, but they all insisted I could do it, so I did.  I couldn’t translate word for word or even sentence for sentence. I got the essence of what was being said, and told the other group what they were talking about. I translated between the Japanese girls and the American girls. I began teaching Bible in the guest house with a translator, but once, my translator didn’t show up, and the Japanese girls asked me to teach them in Japanese. I told them I wasn’t good enough, but they insisted I was, so I taught them Bible in Japanese.

When I came back from Japan after two semesters, I wanted to go back. I had changed my major to English because I realized when I was in Japan that Japan needed lots of English teachers, and if I wanted to go back, I needed to become an English teacher.  My Japanese teacher loaded me up on lots of books to study to improve my Japanese. I was enjoying speaking Japanese.

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I planned to return to Japan as an English teacher/ missionary after I graduated, but I got married. The guy I married promised we would go to Japan as missionaries after we were married, but immediately after the honeymoon, he told me he had lied to get me to marry him, and he had no intentions of going to Japan.  I won’t tell you how I felt about that, but I was married, and Japan was taken away.

My husband felt bad about what he had done, so when my oldest son was a baby, he got us a Japanese exchange student so I could continue with my Japanese.  The girl told me that when she stepped off the plane, I drove her home, and she came into my house, she felt like she hadn’t even left Japan.  I really enjoyed speaking Japanese with her.  She had been studying English for 5 years, but told me she couldn’t speak English, so we spoke Japanese, and I translated for her until she began to get the feel of English and began speaking English.  My oldest son learned some Japanese from her too.

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My husband knew he had taken me away from mission work, not just language, so he decided we should become missionaries, but to an English speaking country.  He found an opportunity to go to Nigeria.  He got a job as a Christian Religious Knowledge teacher in a Nigerian high school.  We went to Nigeria.  I stayed with our 2 year old son at home and ran a very popular Bible Correspondence course.  Only the people who had been to school could speak English, but I wanted to talk to the others, so I began studying Hausa.  I heard there were Hausa classes at the Rest House (a kind of missionary hotel in Nigeria), but we weren’t staying in the rest house. We were staying in a house on the school compound.  Some of the high school students came and were trying to help me learn to speak Hausa.  I learned a little.  The house work was especially demanding physically, and was so hard on me that I had become pregnant and lost the baby, so we had to hire a maid.  I used my Hausa to talk to my maid. I also used it when I went to the market place.  It made the people at the market very happy to hear me speaking Hausa. They were so happy that they gave me great deals on everything, just like the people in Mexico had done when I spoke to them in Spanish.  They people of the country you are in really like you to speak their language.

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When we left Nigeria, we went to Texas.  The church we were attending wanted to begin a Mexican ministry. They were calling for people who had high school Spanish to come and help. They gave us a refresher course in Spanish.  After that, I began attending Bible classes taught in Spanish and getting to know the Mexicans who came to study the Bible. I also taught them a class of English.

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I began graduate school about that time. I actually went thinking I needed a teaching certificate, but they said with my degree from Oklahoma, it would take longer to get a teaching certificate than a masters, so I went for the masters called Teaching English.  I had to commute to the university, and I hated to waste my time, so I turned on the Spanish radio and listened to the radio in Spanish all the way there and back. If I heard a word I didn’t know, I wrote it down and learned it.

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After that, we moved to Abilene, Texas for my husband to go to graduate school.  At church, they were offering a Spanish class, so I went.  There was a Mexican elder teaching the class.  He came up to me during the class and said, “You already speak Spanish.  You don’t need this class,”  but I told him I really wanted to be around Spanish.  He formed a class for people who could already speak Spanish for us to study the Bible together in Spanish.  All the other students had studied much more grammar in that class than I had. They had had 3 or 4 years of Spanish in high school, but my high school had only offered 2 years.  They taught me more complicated verb tenses and more complicated grammar.  We read in Spanish. We had conversations in Spanish. We played games in Spanish. It was fun! I told them I thought we should all form a mission team to Mexico, but they wouldn’t go for it.20190303_140836-2824020116.jpg

Also in Abilene, I worked with the international students from the university. If students had trouble passing their courses or went through culture shock, they called me.  the Japanese students were thrilled when I spoke to them in Japanese and helped them get over the culture shock. I gave them an opportunity to make some Japanese food, took them to baseball games, took students from several countries horseback riding, etc.  I helped them pass their courses, and helped them see a little of what they wanted to see in America, and it made a big different for them. Many students wanted to buy cowboy hats.

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After that, we went to Romania as missionaries.  There were no books, classes, or teachers for Romanian.  We found a Romanian English teacher who said he would help us learn to speak Romanian.  He asked me what we wanted to learn. I showed him some children’s Reading books in English that used the most used words first in order to speed the children to reading fluency, and I told him I wanted to know the words in those books. I knew that it took about 800 words to basically beginning speaking a language, and I knew also that learning the most used words would make us speak faster.  I also told him I wanted to know the past, present, and future of the verbs.  He taught us some verb conjugations and the words in the books, then he got children’s books in Romanian for us to read, and I read them all.  My husband thought it was too hard and stopped studying.  I was amazed because when I listened to the translator at church, I recognized Romanian words because they were like Spanish words or French words.

In Romania, you have to speak to the shop keeper in order to buy anything, You go to the counter and tell them what you want.  No one in my family wanted to go to the store because they thought it was too scary to speak in Romanian. I went because I wasn’t scared to try my Romanian.  If I had been scared, in the beginning, we could have starved. I just kept studying. I read harder and harder books. We got a TV, and there were English shows with Romanian subtitles, and I watched the shows and watched the subtitles.  There came a time when it was hard to find translators for Bible studies, and I decided to try. I began translating for all the Bible studies. I could understand the Romanian Bible with no problems.  I always kept my Romanian Bible and followed along in Romanian when we read the Bible because if I was translating and there was a word I didn’t know, it was always there in the Romanian Bible.  When they opened the free medical clinic, they invited me to translate, and then told me they needed more translators.  I got my students to help.  They made me the head translator and said if the students couldn’t translate, they were to call me.  I appreciated their confidence in me, and I never missed a beat.

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I remember sitting at the zoo and listening to people speak as they went by.  I heard new expressions and would think, “Oh! That is how they express that idea!”  I learned Romanian as if I were a Romanian child.  I was never in a Romanian class.  People would say things to me, and I would listen and copy what they said.  Most adults can’t learn a language like a child. I was in my thirties, but I learned Romanian like a child learns their first language.  20190303_140354-1618089609.jpg

While I was in Romania, a friend of mine got a job in Japan, so I began tutoring her in Japanese so she would know some things when she got there.  The university heard what I was doing and asked me to teach Japanese.  I told them I could carry on conversations in Japanese, but I wasn’t a Japanese teacher.  They insisted and talked to me for 2 years, and I finally gave in.  They told me I could explain the grammar in English, and all the students who took the class needed to be able to speak English, so I did.  After that, a group of students who only spoke Romanian asked me to teach for them, so I did, explaining the Japanese grammar in Romanian.  It drove my brain crazy to speak in two foreign languages at once.  I pushed hard to begin them speaking Japanese so we could just use one foreign language. The university also asked me to teach Spanish, but I told them the foreign languages were frying my brain and just teaching Japanese and speaking Romanian was enough.

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While in Romania, we made frequent visits into Hungary. When my baby was born, I spent a month in Hungary.  I learned how to say things in Hungarian like “hello, goodbye, how much does it cost?, give me one kilo of apples, thank you, etc.”  My Hungarian was very limited. When my baby was born, I asked for an English speaking doctor, and got one, but then they sent a Romanian speaking doctor everyday, and I only saw the English speaking doctor once.  It didn’t matter how sick I was, I could speak Romanian. I also learned a few words of German while I was in Romania because there were many Germans around us.

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After Romania, we went to Ohio.  One of the universities called me up and said, “I heard to speak Spanish,” and I had to admit that I did.  They asked me to come teach Spanish for them.  I told them I was not a Spanish teacher.  They insisted saying no one else could do it, so I did it.  After that, some students heard that I had taught Japanese in Romania, and they wanted Japanese and talked the school into asking me to teach Japanese taught English, Japanese, and Spanish


After that, we went to Japan.  My husband had finally relented, or so I thought. I got a job in a language school in Japan teaching English.  My husband began studying Japanese and hated it!  He hated Japan!  He caused all kind of trouble, then he went into my purse, took all the money, and left me with two kids and no money in Japan.  (I no longer have a husband.) I continued teaching for a year, and my kids were beginning to speak Japanese.  All my kids could speak Romanian by that point, and my oldest son was studying German, and my oldest daughter had learned to speak Spanish too.

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After a year, I went to Texas. I got a job teaching Spanish in a private high school.  My younger son began studying Spanish and loved it because it was like Romanian. He learned to speak Spanish.  I began working on an ESL teaching certificate, and after a year, I began teaching ESL in a private elementary school. All my students were from Mexico.  Their parents couldn’t speak English. I became a translator for the parents and the teachers.  I was told by a Mexican secretary that my Spanish was a combination of Mexican Spanish and book Spanish.  She told me to never write anything in Spanish unless she checked it first because when I wrote it, there were lots of mistakes.  She made an agreement with me that when she wrote in English, that I would also correct her English letters as she corrected my Spanish ones.

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After that, I had an invitation to come to Korea, and I came. I spoke to the Koreans who could speak Japanese at first in Japanese.  However, I began studying Korean by myself.  There were books to study Korean, unlike when I went to Romania or Nigeria.  I learned at first just to get around a little.  After that, I began teaching at the university, and the students were really struggling with English.  The Korean students seemed to have more trouble with English than any students I had taught.  When I studied Korean, initially, I did it because I knew it was only right and polite if I were going to live in their country.  When I began teaching these students at the university, I decided I needed to study Korean grammar to figure out what their problems were, so I did.  I learned to speak Korean.  I began teaching the lowest level students who studied English at the university because I could speak to them in Korean and make a bridge for them into English. The other foreign English teachers were speaking to them all in English. I had some classes where I didn’t need Korean, but there were some, if I hadn’t begun in Korean and slowly gotten them into English, they wouldn’t have made it.20190223_193831.jpg

Koreans make it difficult for foreigners to learn to speak Korean because so many of them speak English on all different levels. Even the McDonald’s workers study phrases in English to speak to foreigners.  You try your Korean on them, and they speak back in English, but that may be all the English they know.  They know Korean is hard, so they study English. There are English schools everywhere in Korea.  In Japan, in Romania, in Mexico, in Nigeria, they all wanted me to speak their language, but the Koreans wanted to speak in English. Many foreigners give up trying to learn to speak Korean, but I didn’t.  It helped my students a lot for me not to give up.  I am now teaching a Bible class in Korean.  There are many Koreans who don’t speak English at all, and they really appreciate being able to speak to me in Korean.  The ones who don’t speak English are thrilled to find a foreigner who they can talk to.

I want to bridge gaps.  I want to reach out. I want to help.  Learning language is not easy, but I care about people.  I want to communicate.  I want to help them learn English if they want. I want to help them find God if that is what they want.  In the beginning, language was just something fun I did, but I learned that there were lots of wonderful reasons to study a language.  I always wanted to talk to the grandmothers and grandfathers.  I knew they could help me understand so much when I went into a country. I love understanding.  I love helping others understand.  Someone asked me once why I taught, and I said, “I love to see other people do well, and if I know I have had a part in helping them do well, that makes me feel even better.” This is my basic history with language.  I always wanted to speak all the languages I speak better, but didn’t always have a chance.  One of my friends is taking a French course now, and she tries her French on me, and she is pronouncing what is on the page as if it is English, but French is pronounced so different from English. I have to listen close to figure out what she is trying to say and then correct her so she can be understood, but I know my French isn’t on that high of a level, but what I speak is real and deep.  I have substituted for French teachers, but I couldn’t actually be a French teacher, but I can teach English, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and Romanian.

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