When I spend time with my friends’ children who are just learning to talk, word-by-word, short sentence by short sentence, two things become abundantly clear. The first is that Art Linkletter was right; kids do say the darndest things. After all, there’s nothing cuter than a three-year-old saying – out of nowhere – “Party over here, party over there!” I would have fallen out of my chair if my friend’s daughter followed that up with, “Wave your hands in the air, shake your derrière!” The second thing is that I’m constantly baffled by kids’ sponge-like ability to learn a language simply by being embedded in an environment where that language is spoken. Obviously, that’s how I learned English, but as someone who aspires to speak a second language, it’s astounding.
Since I was a teenager, I have done nothing but make halfhearted attempts to become bilingual. In high school, I attempted Spanish. And while I probably got an A, I wasn’t left with more than the ability to ask, “Donde esta el baño?” In college, I decided to give French a go. Again, I passed, but did I learn more than “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Nope.
Not one to be discouraged, as an adult, I tried French again. When I came out of that class without a better handle on the language, I moved on to Japanese, which I recently took for the second time. The only part of Japanese that is easier than Spanish or French is that I find the accent to be more accessible. Slightly. Although, recently I said something in Japanese to my Japanese grandfather who responded with, “Are you speaking Spanish?” Maybe I should’ve stuck with Spanish after all.
But I’ve come to realize that my problem is simple. Stage fright. On paper, I’m quite good. Well, better. But without my worksheets and note cards as my security blanket, I’m a mute. My Japanese teacher asked if I have gone to Little Tokyo to practice what I’ve learned. I have, but thus far I’m too nervous to try anything out. I realize that ultimately I have to face my fear and go to Japan. Not that the country is scary, but having to fumble through my remedial Japanese is downright terrifying.
So I watch in amazement as kids grow their vocabulary. I figure by now I have the Japanese language skills of a three-year-old. And that is on my best day and the Japanese toddler’s worst day. I also have the swimming ability of a small child despite taking swim lessons twice as a kid. Foreign languages and large bodies of water; I’m not comfortable with either. Let’s hope that if I’m ever stranded at sea I’m in an English-speaking body of water and not, say, in the Sea of Japan. Tread water AND speak Japanese? Better get some waterproof note cards.