Reading Lives: Speaking in Tongues

For those of you learning a foreign language, either for your degree or for a trip abroad, the Mayfield Library has many resources. One of our newest is the TEL (Tennessee Electronic Library) database, PowerSpeak Languages, which has lessons in the following:

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German
  • Italian
  • Russian
  • Mandarin
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • English (for Spanish speakers)

Our most popular language course on campus is Spanish, and we have a guide for that.

This week, our reading group shares memories of foreign languages:

Colette: I was an exchange student, in my youth, and lived with a host family on the most Southern tip of Japan.  I spoke almost no Japanese and my host family spoke almost no English, so we played many games of charades in places like the grocery store or the train station.  Most of the people who lived in Fukuoka had never seen an American, except on TV, so I was something of a status symbol for my hosts, and a curiosity for their neighbors. One day each week my hosts held an “open house” where neighbors were allowed to come over and get a peek at me, or have a “chat”, which consisted of lots of smiling and nodding at nothing in particular.

 My most memorable language experience was on the day I attended classes with one of my host sisters.  I was there during the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.  The instructor was lecturing and drawing pictures on the board; the topic of his lecture soon became very clear to me and I knew the pictures were for my benefit.  He drew an airplane, an atomic mushroom cloud, and then proceeded to draw a huge pile of stick figures with x’d out eyes.  As all heads in the room turned toward me, I felt shame like I never had before.  Sometimes there just aren’t any words, in any language, that seem suitable.

Emily: My foreign language experience is almost exclusively limited to that most useless of dead languages, Latin. Everyone (everyone being other people who took Latin) tells you, “Oh, it’ll improve your vocabulary.” “If you ever want to learn a romance language it will be soooo easy!” “The Certamen Bowls will be the highlight of your high school experience!” (The Latin dweebs know what I’m talking about…) “You get to read the Aeneid!” Despite these compelling reasons to choose Latin as my foreign language of choice, the most compelling of all was, “You don’t have to speak it.”* So I signed on for four wonderful years of Latin in high school — Latin at my high school was more club than a class. There were about 15 of us that took the class every year, despite only needing two years, and about two who actually learned Latin. The rest of us excelled at earning JCL (Junior Classical League) ribbons in areas like costume and pottery. For those of you unfamiliar with Junior Classical League, just imagine hoards of fifteen-year-old Dungeons and Dragons players converging in one place to conjugate Latin verbs whilst wearing makeshift togas and trading Magic cards. I, for one, am the proud owner of several second and third places ribbons for photography.

*Ironically, since I didn’t learn Latin in high school, I had to take a few semesters in college. Apparently, classics professors don’t believe Latin is dead, forcing shy students to read the Aeneid out loud in class, “Again! With feeling this time! Make Virgil proud!”.

Pam: I have many happy memories of studying Spanish, but I believe one of my favorites is meeting a handsome man from Venezuela while singing one night at the Blind Lemon in Cincinnati. He was very friendly, and I was enamored by his sweet personality and the challenge to attempt to talk with him. Pathetically, he had seemed to have learned much more English in two weeks than I had learned Spanish in three high school semesters (even though I DID win the Spanish III award, might I add :-). It was around Christmastime, and there was festivity in the air. He invited me to dinner, and the next day before he arrived, I looked up my old Spanish instructor’s phone number and had the most delightful time cramming a review over the phone. As we hung up, Senora Smith bid me good luck with my big date. I invited him over to my apartment the next day, and we sat on my living room floor near the Christmas tree chatting up a Latin storm. It was a FABulous time! Having toured for seven years with my country band, Wild Rose, I have extremely fun memories of attempting to speak in many foreign languages each time we performed out of the country. I fronted the band, so it was always a playful challenge to address the audience in their language, and they appreciated it with much enthusiasm. Sweet memories flood my mind from Kumamoto in Japan, from Germany, Switzerland, Spain and France, but perhaps none so vivid as when we performed in Sao Palo, Brazil and I zealously attempted to convert my Spanish into Portuguese there. What a joy to chatter endlessly with our guides and be able to connect with the anticipating audience. It was not until I came off the stage that I learned (AND LATER READ in one of the country trade magazines back in the US) that I had evidently delighted the crowd a little too much when I had joyously announced that we were having a great time and hoped to “Eat Sh–“! True, true.

Sally: My memory of learning a foreign language begins in kindergarten. My kindergarten teacher had been to Spain and knew Spanish so she taught us some basic Spanish. Then in 4th grade I learned French. I high school for the language requirement I took Spanish again. By the time i got to college I was so confused that I did not take a language.  Maybe now I should try TEL’s new PowerSpeak database to learn a language. 

Jolly Librarian: My doctoral program required proficiency in two languages. Having taken Spanish in high school and college, I had hopes to pass that test. (As long as I didn’t have to say anything.) But for my second language, I was going to have to start fresh. But after taking the Spanish test, I was pretty confident. This test covered basic newspaper articles in Spanish, and I was pretty sure I could learn enough French to do that. So I started learning French on my own, checking out grammar and dual-language books and studying a little bit each day. On the day of the test, I opened  my booklet to find no charming news stories. Instead I found a literary analysis of Negritude. (I’ve never even heard of it.)  I struggled along and turned in my paper, and immediately started looking for college classes I would have to take in place of the test. Several weeks went by, which gave me time to contemplate the added time and expense these courses would add to my program. Then came my grade. I not only passed, but the reader said I had a good sense of the language. I learned two important lessons that day: Sometimes the dumb get lucky. And, apparently, sometimes drunk people are hired to read and analyze graduate language exams.


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