Growing up, language was a big part of my life because I was either learning a new language or speaking another. I learned Mandarin, English, Thai, and French, but currently only speak English and Mandarin. Regardless of the languages I retained, I am grateful for the roles each language played in my life.
Thai & French
The extent of my exposure to Thai was through a mandatory Thai class everyone had to take in elementary school. We learned to read, write, and speak in Thai; we also learned about their customs and traditions. It was super fun to learn a new language – I was picking it up so quickly that my teacher asked if I wanted to move into the native speakers class. I didn’t end up moving classes because I was afraid of feeling lost and being the odd one out in class. Looking back, I regret not taking on the challenge because damn, I was good at learning Thai.
People are always surprised I don’t speak Thai despite living in the country for 13 years. I spoke enough Thai to get around in public. For those who never grew up in another non-English speaking country, you’d be surprised how easy it is to survive without speaking the language fluently. Unless you went to a public school, your exposure to the local language and the need to speak it goes down. I don’t believe it’s embarrassing that I don’t speak their language. I still embraced the Thai culture in other ways.
In middle school, we were required to take a language of our choosing and I picked French. To be honest, I chose French because my older brother was also learning French at the time. I treated this language as another subject in school and did mediocre in class. I didn’t use the language much outside of class, so I forgot a lot of what I learned after graduation. Despite this, I am still grateful that through learning another language, I also learned about other cultures.
Mandarin & English
I used to be a better Mandarin speaker than an English speaker. My dad used to videotape my brother and me practice speaking English by asking us questions. I would be too shy to answer because I would stumble through my responses. It’s funny to think back to those times because now it’s reversed!
Before I was big enough to attend school, my mom taught me how to read and write Chinese at home. Once I started school, it became a lot harder to practice since I spent most of every day using English. My parents put me in Saturday Mandarin school and I hated it. I started out liking it because I did well during tests but as I grew older, my interests shifted and I didn’t put a big priority on Mandarin. I lost confidence because my Mandarin skills and test scores went down, which created a downward spiral of no motivation to continue learning.
My dad used to reiterate how important Mandarin was, but I just didn’t listen. Now I regret it and wish I took him more seriously. When I graduated from university, I assumed I would be able to stay and work in the US easily, so I didn’t bother maintaining my Mandarin skills. Sigh. I was so uninformed about how the real world works back then! Now that I find myself back in Taiwan, I have a love/hate relationship with the language. I’m happy that I can understand and speak conversationally, but it’s frustrating when I can’t articulate my thoughts and ideas well. I have come to accept that I will never be at the same level of fluency of Mandarin as I am in English, but I continue to work on it so that I can improve and communicate better with people.
Did you learn another language in school? What are your thoughts on language and its role in your identity? Let me know down in the comments!