The first two months of this year post-Seoul haven’t been quite the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of pace that the first four months had, and that makes sense: winters in Japan (especially Tottori) are surprisingly brutal—we Winnipegers like to brag about facing extremes, but I’ve never been so warm and so cold as I have in Japan. So we huddle indoors under our kotatsu and slowly rewatch the entirety of Breaking Bad (in retrospect, this was probably bound to happen).
At the same time, I’ve been going through a private adventure that, though mostly bound to Tottori, is in its own way just as exciting, and probably more impactful long-term, than the strung-out all nightervilles of the first term. Understanding.
I’ve reached the point in my Japanese where I can safely call it a ‘working level,’ which is to say, it can work, however clunkily, in most situations. I realized this after a conversation with a dentist student in a coffee shop, where we spoke about American politics and what college students thought about it all—there was a lot of ‘uhms,’ ‘so kanaaas,’ and half-laughs as I tried to find words to fit, but we came to an understanding.
And so I now feel comfortable saying “I speak Japanese,” an accomplishment which lines up with finally starting to read French literature. Okay, it’s l’étranger, which is about as basic a ‘first French reader’s’ book as they come, I know I know. But being able to read—to be moved, impacted, changed—by something you read in a language you were not born with: that’s an extraordinary moment. And at the same time using on a daily basis an incredibly nuanced language whose grammatical riggings are the opposite of English? Man. These are the moments I’m taking with me.
What’s surprising is not that, at 23, I speak 3 languages (I have many friends who speak quite a few more than that), and nor is it that one of those languages is considered one of the hardest to learn. What’s surprising, for me at least, is that 4 years ago I could only speak one. For the longest time I hated learning languages. As a writer and performer, being able to express thoughts eloquently has always been central, and so living in a language where you can only pad clunkily through always struck me as the opposite of want I want to do in life.
I saw languages, up to my second year at uni, as much more a left brain pursuit than a right brain one—I thought it was all about arbitrary memorization and nailing structures and patterns, making it much more like algebra (with its single answers) than the arts-based subjects I was good at. I struggled through French that first year at uni because I needed the language credits, and when I jumped at the chance to go to Quebec that summer, I jumped not for a love of the language, but because it was an easy, near-free way of seeing a part of the country I’d never been to and also getting language credits for it. What an easy summer!
Well, not really. The explore program is designed to have its students live in an environment of complete immersion, dropping you into a French-only policy whether you’re reading Baudelaire or you’re learning how to order water from the menu.
French broke me. It broke me a number of times—being the ‘dumb one’ in the intermediate class, failing to memorize any lines for a French play I’d signed up for—the most single most soul-crushing moment being standing in line at a fast food restaurant and having the whole restaurant staff gleefully laugh at me (in that uniquely Quebecois way) when I couldn’t stutter out a word.
It’s the only time I’ve ever truly felt like a second class citizen, and helped me comprehend the private hell most immigrants must go through on a semi-regular basis. I learned that the people who are always asking “why can’t they learn our language if they come to our country” are the same people who know one language, who’ve never had their gilded cage shaken in such a way to show that this most inherent and globally encompassing aspect of privilege is hard-wired into our brains. Learning a new language shook me out of it, set me on a course that’s brought me here.
The Explore program was rigorous enough to get me to the point of having some basic conversations about relatable things in French. It still felt like pulling teeth, I still thought I sucked at languages. I always tell people I did Sciences Po for exchange because I’d gained a love for French and wanted to use it all the time. That’s pretty-much an outright lie: I adored the idea of being a student in Paris, I wanted to live out that Hemmingway quote I ended up quoting ten thousand times while there. That’s why the first two months there found me getting real good at ordering a baguette and an espresso in about as arrogantly Parisian fashion as possible, and yet stumbling trying anything of slightly higher complexity.
The final two months, I began to settle into it: there was wine, laughter, and talks that went until sunrise. French increasingly became the backdrop of all of this (the phrases thrown in, the peripheral conversations), and I began to find I had a flare for it, for taking on accents or flipping around phrases.
I came to understand foreign language learning isn’t like math at all. It’s not about the right answers or perfect phrases; language is life, art, expression at its most basic and most beautiful.
And French, with its joie de vivre, ennuie, and mode de vie, was the perfect language to introduce me to that. In those last couple weeks in Paris, I found myself able to interact with the city in entirely new dimensions—using the language in a daily context, the very architecture of life changed, the undertones and context, the history, the people, and I suddenly understood that this was travelling, this was being shaken out of all you knew or usually felt. The world changed in French.
I changed too. It’s like living in a house your entire life, and then finding the key to an old closet under some stairs. You get to go in now, and you find the closet extends back you the house; you peer around at the unnerving, fascinating objects with your tiny flashlight. You don’t completely understand what you’ve seen, but finding that room changes how you perceive the entire house. The foundations have changed.
And having that snatched away from you right as you begin to understand just how much of a gift that opportunity really was—that hurt. Over the course of the four months, a “super fun break from regular uni (what, marks don’t count? Time to get wasted!),” became “oh shit, this place, these people: they’re changing my life.” It ended far too soon. And everything I did the two years after that, from Asian studies to working with Explore to finishing my degree as soon as possible, was to get me here—in some ways to this exact moment.
I approached Japanese using the lessons I’d learned from French: don’t try to literally translate something, don’t spend hours memorizing phrases; don’t judge if this is easier to say in English, each language and the culture attached to it values different things; just get out there kid, try try try! These lessons served me well in Japanese, a language with an immensely complex context-heavy structure that avoids using pronouns, does not have future tense, and doesn’t have verbs for things like ‘might be’ ‘can’ ‘want’ and ‘like’ (instead usually inventing entirely new conjugations). Remote living forced me to use what I’d learned right away, and things kept accelerating. I kept expecting to hit a wall, but I never did.
And it happened. Is happening. Finding these internal revolutions in a streetsign. Sometimes I read the writing on a board and, recognizing all the characters, I get so excited my throat constricts—sometimes I laugh way too hard at a joke my coworkers make cause I’m just so happy I understood it, and they all give me this funny look (“the Foreigner’s at it again des ne!”) And I don’t care: I’m beginning to get it.
This becomes peculiarly satisfying in such a small town: you think you know it all, every shop and fieldcorner where the farmer’s bringing in his turnips, until (now) all that’s upheaved, and you realize you were only watching it go by. You didn’t understand anything. Now it’s streetsigns with funny kanji, and jokes made by the grumbling old men always sitting in the local bar—the humor, the life, of Tottori begins to appear. I learn enough to realize I still know nothing at all.
And the Kanji—the thousands of Chinese characters looming before me like this Berlin Wall blocking me from Japanese fluency. That’s a day by day struggle. At first, kanji is a lot of fun: I’m a visual learner, and so, “oooh look, they’re all pretty pictures, they’re so representative!” Then it’s much less like art and much more like geometry: just a shit ton of lines and angles to memorize. But your brain changes to understand it: you begin to see language as a puzzle asking to be solved.
It helps that both languages have such extraordinary artistic heritages—I mean, it’s pretty great getting to watch Kurosawa or Ghibli films and call it “studying,” and I won’t stop studying French till I can dive into Flaubert and Proust. With French, I go through waves of enthusiasm and pessimism with my self-study, since I knew pretty much none of it coming back from Paris (learning through the wine bottle’ll do that to your language acquisition—sounding great but understanding none of it). Lucky, then, that all the ‘you’re-not-a-real-teacher’ ALT deskwarming can be put to some real use, since I was finally able to get the French up to a l’étranger level.
Reading French literature brings me back to square one. In a way it’s always been the end goal for language: experiencing art first hand, author-to-reader, no barriers. I’m feeling my way through a world I can only vaguely understand: Camus’ Algeria emerges at best in pastels and shadows. I’m twelve again, trying to read the big-boy books like Dickens, hobbling through it painfully but assuredly, because at the end of it these are stories worth living through. As I push forward, spending hours on a chapter that could’ve taken me five minutes in English, I’m finding new ways to express myself, even new ways of feeling.
I’m swimming in language, diving down to deeper darker places. Every time I come up for air I’ve brought something back with me: my own writing has improved immensely. Now I can feel out the words of my own language too, the rhythm and sounds, the beautiful inconsistencies, swimming between the words. Swimming and expression has always been the two things I’ve been naturally, exuberantly comfortable with, and being able to bring the two together feels both too good to be true, and also the natural fruition of something.
And I can only describe it through metaphor because these feelings don’t exist in a single language: they’re found between languages, and the more I learn, the more that feeling grows. The more time I spend here the more my thoughts transform.
Using new languages is almost like getting to be a different person for a while. Stepping out of yourself, out of your preconceptions: isn’t that what we all want? Of course, it’s always still me. It’s just a part of me I hadn’t discovered yet.
I’m beginning to breath underwater. It’s exhilarating.