GCD: Intercultural Communications + Multilingualism

Intercultural Communications: Engage with people in another language or culture and communicate thoughtfully and appropriately.
Multilingualism: You describe your fluency in multiple languages and reflect on what this means to you and your life.

As a multilingual person, I understand that learning a language is one of the best ways to access another culture, but whether this additional culture is fully integrated into the person is a different question. For me, being able to speak English, Japanese and French fluently required immersing myself in their respective cultures and hence, I have constantly engaged with people in another language and I have demonstrated my fluency by learning to communicate thoughtfully and appropriately in each of these languages.

Japanese

Japanese is my mother tongue – I demonstrate fluency in the language by constantly communicating with both my Japanese mother and Indian father, my siblings, and friends in Japanese. I like to think that being a fluent Japanese speaker has taught me respect and thoughtfulness. The Japanese language is a reflection of its cultural values like good manners and compassion and speaking or writing in the language almost always requires me to actively demonstrate respect. There’s phrases like “otsukaresama desu” which there are no equivalents for in English but would directly translate to something like: “I humbly exalt you in your state of exhaustion” – it’s a way of showing respect to people who are tired from working hard and I often wish there was an equivalent for this in English especially when expressing my gratitude for teachers at school.

English

I came to YIS at the age of 5 with barely any knowledge of the English language – I learnt to speak English purely through listening and observing others in my class and surprisingly, it only took me a few months to be able to construct simple sentences and follow the teacher’s instructions.
As an international school student, I am required to speak, write and read in English everyday but this is just one way that I demonstrate fluency in this language. While Japanese has always been a primary language for communicating at home, I realise that I now integrate much more English into my sentences, perhaps because so much of my time at school is spent speaking the language.

One of the biggest benefits of having the ability to fluently speak and understand English is its global status. Wherever I go in the world, I am able to take advantage of my fluency in English and this isn’t limited to countries where English is their primary language of communication – it works everywhere 🙂 When I visited Taiwan last summer, I obviously struggled to understand what the locals were saying but I often overcame this challenge by starting up a conversation in English.

Although being able to speak both Japanese and English has benefitted me in many areas, I sometimes face challenges with translation between the two languages. I don’t necessarily invent words but I sometimes find myself using English in a Japanese way like saying; “did you cut your hair? ” while of course implying “did you get a haircut?”. In Japanese, you would say “Kami kitta?” which if directly translated to English would be asking someone if they cut their own hair. Although this isn’t always a big problem, I sometimes do encounter embarrassing situations when people would laugh at me for speaking what they call “Japanglish” or “Engrish”.

French

As a Francophile, I was determined to continue my French study in high school but one thing that made this decision difficult was being a fluent Japanese speaker. At school, it was a common stereotype that fluent Japanese speakers would never choose to study another language in high school (with the exception of English which is mandatory) and this was understandable given that this was actually almost always the case. Every fluent Japanese speaker in my grade decided to continue studying the Japanese language in high school. So it was no wonder that in my first two years of high school, people were constantly asking me if I remembered when their Japanese homework was due or when the next Kanji test was – I had to tell at least one person everyday that I was taking French and not Japanese 🙂

When I first decided to continue my studies in French as a freshman in high school, I remember experiencing a deep sense of inadequacy and an abundance of self-doubt. While I thought I made the right decision to take French class, my first few months were traumatic as I hopelessly struggled with conjugations – something that was foreign to me but ordinary for everyone else in the class who had already mastered the rules from their Spanish, German or Dutch mother tongue.

A turning point came for me one day, however, when my teacher played a song by a French artist called Louane, or as my teacher likes to call her, “The French Adele”. While the rest of the class continued to talk over the song, I was fascinated by the music and asked my teacher to play her other songs. Up to this point, French seemed stuffy and dry, but now, it was something that was cool.

In retrospect, something becomes very obvious now: for me learning to truly enjoy studying a foreign language needed to be interesting – there needed to be a “hook” of some kind. Since learning to truly enjoy learning a foreign language, I have become much more keen on immersing myself in the culture of the language too. Having studied French for 7 years, it was time for me to demonstrate my fluency and so I made my first ever solo trip to Paris for a dance camp two years ago where I was required to speak, read and listen in French for a whole entire week. While English was there to save me at times I struggled to remember certain French words, I was also surprised at the level of fluency I was able to demonstrate. While I immersed myself in the French culture, I picked up on a thousand new words and phrases and cool French slangs but I was also able to experience their cuisine, arts as well as their etiquette and customs like making sure to always arrive at least 5 minutes late to “rendez-vous”s and always giving flower bouquets in odd-numbered bunches but never 13 because it’s bad luck 🙂

What it means to be multilingual:

As a multilingual, I draw on all of my linguistic resources in each area of my lives. For example, I would read in one language but discuss what I read in another. I sometimes even choose to mix  languages when I’m talking with my friends – it’s one way that I try to make sense of the world.

One thing I find interesting about being a multilingual is the way my personality subtly mutate as I switch from one language to another. When speaking English, I’m much more expressive, in Japanese, I’m precise and serious, and in French, maybe a little more vulnerable.  In another language, I don’t just learn new words or sounds, but new notions too. For me, switching between languages is like putting on different spectacles and seeing the world with different eyes 🙂

Having lived in Japan for most of my life, I grew up to be a rather quiet and reserved individual and I was constantly surrounded by a linguistic group whose conservative values ran against my personal values . To me, English became the language of liberation and free self-expression as I began to discover the nuances between the two languages. Learning to speak English fluently has since equipped me to communicate with the world in a way my mother tongue would never have allowed me to do. In this case, the cultural values represented by the languages were the driving force behind my linguistic identity.

As a multilingual, I realise that one’s ethnicity and cultural identity is very flexible and can change quite easily as a response to a changing social and cultural context. In this framework, being a multilingual allows me to transcend my ethnocentricity because, as I switch between these three languages, I realise that there are other equally valid ways of being and doing. This, I believe, allows me to build deeper interpersonal relationships with people from other cultural contexts, acquiring sympathy and a healthy acceptance of otherness.

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