Throughout my life, I have been exposed to several different languages. Although I was born in the US, I have never lived there or in the Netherlands, which are both my native countries. Instead, I lived in Japan from infancy to when I was three years old, then in Belgium until I was five, before returning to Japan and hence spending most of my life here. I am fluent in both English and Dutch, but for this reflection will instead focus on foreign languages that I have learned throughout my life.
Despite having lived in Japan for most of my life and attended YIS since kindergarten, I do not speak very much Japanese. Instead of taking Japanese classes throughout elementary school like all the other students, my parents enrolled me in the Dutch mother tongue classes to maintain my fluency in the language, which I am grateful for. However, as a result, I only took Japanese classes in seventh and eighth grade, which was useful, as they taught me to read both katakana and hiragana, but my vocabulary is still quite limited. My relationship with Japanese culture has been quite interesting, as I feel very comfortable in the country but do not fit in whatsoever because my primary environment has been the community of an international school.
Because most of the Japanese general public does not speak English, it can be difficult to navigate the public transportation systems. Because I have lived in the same area since I was five years old, I find it easy to find my way around Yokohama and Motomachi, but this is quite a different story when it comes to Tokyo. One occasion I remember was when I was returning home from Tokyo by train on one of the JR lines, which are more unfamiliar to me as I am used to the Toyoko and Minatomirai lines. I had managed to find my way to the platform which I believed hosted the line I needed to take, but was not sure which train to get on, as there was more than one line leaving from that platform. Luckily, I was able to ask another person on the platform whether or not the train in question went to Yokohama station, where I would be able to transfer to the Minatomira line, by asking: “kono densha wa yokohama eki ni ikimasuka?” While at the time I was not sure if this was completely grammatically correct, the woman I asked understood and reassured me that I was on the correct train. I am glad that, while I have not become proficient in Japanese, that I have learned enough to get around.
The other language I have learned at school is French, which I am much better at than Japanese, as I have been studying it since sixth grade. I initially chose this language as opposed to Spanish or Mandarin, the other options I was given, as my parents and siblings all studied French in school and it is also one of my father’s seven fluent languages. My family’s multilingualism has always inspired me to explore the cultural connections between different languages, and I am glad that I have learned French to the level that I have. While my vocabulary is still not fluent and is somewhat limited to the topics covered in school, it has grown significantly over the past few years in particular. Unlike with Japanese, in French I do not often feel as if I need to translate sentences from English in my head before speaking, and I have become more comfortable with it. On one occasion in tenth grade, I was volunteering to help with the Daddy Daughter Dance, which happened to be Paris-themed and run by a group of French women. Although they spoke much faster than what I was used to in class, I was able to speak some French with them and understand the different jobs that I had to do. This was a very exciting moment for me, as I had never before really tested out my language skills in a setting with a group of native speakers.
One thing that I have noticed while learning French is the linguistic importance of gender. All nouns are classified as either masculine or feminine, and adjectives must also be adjusted to match gender. Because this concept rarely exists in English, besides sometimes distinguishing between genders in terms of occupation, this was very interesting for me to learn. It suggested that French culture has a traditional view of gender, as all French pronouns are gendered, whereas English has the gender-neutral “they”. Another observation about language and gender was that when describing groups, a male form and female form of the word “they” exists, “ils” and “elles”, respectively. If a group of people is comprised of all males and all females this is quite straightforward, but if a group is made up of a combination, it is always referred to as “ils”, even if only one male is present. This suggests an undertone of male dominance in the culture that was implemented at least when the language was created.
In addition to French, I have been learning some Norwegian outside of school on Duolingo, a language acquisition website. This was inspired by my interest in Herik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, which we studied during our Literature in Translation unit of English class. So far I have found the language really interesting, and learning it has felt more like a hobby than a class, which I have really enjoyed. Languages overall fascinate me, a similar example being when I learned some American Sign Language for a science project about hearing loss. Growing up in an international community has exposed me to a lot of different languages, and I am very grateful for this. While I have encountered challenges concerning language barriers during different travels, this has generally resulted in me learning something new about the language and culture.