Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reflections on language training

Learning a foreign language is a challenging endeavor. It requires hours of study, taxing our memory and patience as we adapt to an entirely new way of communicating.  As adults, our minds are stubborn, having settled into deeply ingrained speech and thought patterns, leading to perhaps one of the greatest challenges of learning a foreign language: breaking free from these patterns.
The primary challenge of learning a foreign language is purely technical. We first attempt to understand the language’s basic grammar rules, memorize vocabulary, learn pronunciation, and in some cases, reorient oneself to an entirely different sentence structure. For example, when compared to English, Tagalog’s sentence structure feels inverted. However, in order to approach fluency, we must not think of Tagalog as being “backward,” but simply a different sequence of thought. Disparities such as these require us to understand that language may not translate linearly, and that our minds must be open to foreign thought patterns as well as foreign words. 
A secondary, but far subtler, challenge we face in learning to communicate in a foreign language is that of culture. Language is not spoken or understood in a cultural vacuum, and failing to appreciate the cultural nuances embedded within a particular word or phrase may cause us to fail to understand the full import of the language.
Thus, in seeking to truly understand a foreign language and communicate with a native speaker in a particular language, we must be open to learning all aspects of the language--including those aspects informing the nuances of the spoken word, not just the word itself. For example, Tagalog has one word to describe both the state of being alone and feeling lonely. According to our Tagalog instructor, the reason for this is simple: being without the company of others is so rare in the Philippines that Filipinos assume you are lonely if you are not surrounded by people. However, in English, being alone does not necessarily mean that one is lonely. Our individualistic society places great value on independence, and thus has several words to describe with greater accuracy whether one is “alone” or “lonely.” It is only through openness to understanding cultural nuance that we can completely appreciate this dichotomy.
In truth, any experience with a culture other than our own requires us to examine ourselves and to reflect on our basic assumptions about language and communication. As a language student, these subconscious assumptions are brought to the surface, and although challenging, offer us the opportunity to cultivate flexibility and openness. When learning a foreign language, our ultimate goal is to be able to communicate, and although learning another language takes us out of our comfort zone, it opens the door to a world of new experiences.

Having finished Tagalog training, we are now preparing to leave for Manila. In February we left our comfort zone by uprooting ourselves from my hometown and our home for the last five years. This month we will be leaving the comfort of the wonderful friends we have made from our A-100 class. Yet I look forward to meeting the friends we will make in Manila and experiencing life in a foreign country for the first time as adults.

We're going where?!

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