In every corner of TPHS, students hear strings of words in unfamiliar languages ringing across the quad and drifting through the hallways. For most, the wisps of conversation are easy to ignore, dismissed as a buzzing in the ears. For others, specific languages are a source of comfort and familiarity, representing the way they communicate at home or with friends.
“Where I grew up in Southern California, there were a lot of people who spoke Spanish around me in school, so I was interested in it,” Spanish teacher Greg Balden said.
Balden’s interest in the language stems from his childhood, when he lived in California with his part-Mexican grandfather, who spoke both English and Spanish. Balden and his Bulgarian wife are teaching their daughter both Spanish and Bulgarian and want her to learn as many languages as possible in order to communicate with her grandmother and other family members.
“When you’re learning a language, you’re learning a culture, so there’s definitely a connection between the two,” Balden said. “You want to learn a language not only to be able to communicate with other people and understand them, but also to kind of cross over to another world, so to speak, to relate to them and open up your possibilities as a person.”
Emma Gunnarsson (10), who speaks fluent Swedish, was born in Sweden and lived there until she was 3 years old. Gunnarsson, who has also lived in Spain, said that without the knowledge of her native language she would not have retained strong cultural ties to her extended family because the language barrier would be too great to breach. Additionally, in order to become comfortable with living in a foreign country, Gunnarsson needed to learn both the language and culture of Spain.
“I would do different things on the weekends [when I was living in Spain] to become more familiar with Spanish culture, like go to museums and typical Spanish restaurants,” Gunnarsson said.
An Wang (10) has lived in the United States, Canada and China, which is the primary reason for his multilingualism. He speaks English, French and Chinese, all of which he learned at a young age.
“Most of the process [of learning a language] is just that you’re in that environment, and you catch on as you get older,” Wang said.
According to Therese Sullivan Caccavale, president of the National Network for Early Language Learning, interviewed for an American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages newsletter, studies have repeatedly shown that learning a foreign language increases critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of mind in young children. Research conducted in Canada with young, bilingual children shows they develop the concept of “object permanence,” the knowledge that an object remains the same, even though the object has a different name in another language. Both Wang and Mira Kinebuchi (12), who speaks both Japanese and Korean because she has a parent from each country, feel that there are many traceable commonalities between languages. For example, because French and Spanish have the same Latin origins, learning one is easier with knowledge of the other. On the other hand, because Kinebuchi knows Japanese and Korean, “it [is] easier to be flexible” when learning Spanish, even though her other languages have no similarities to Spanish.
“I realized that when I go to groups and there are people who can’t speak English, I can translate [for them],” Kinebuchi said. “I think it’s really cool to be able to communicate with more people and be friends with them, and I can travel more.”
Martha Abbott, Director of Education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said in the organization’s newsletter “knowing other languages and understanding other cultures is a 21st century skill set for American students as they prepare to live and work in a global society.” No matter what careers students enter, they will be interacting with others around the world. Som Leung, an in-house lawyer for a multinational company who speaks English, two dialects of Chinese, Dutch and French, uses his vast knowledge of languages in his work and personal associations.
“In my role, it is important to build rapport with people, and speaking someone’s language is critical to that,” Leung said.
Most of Leung’s work is conducted in one language at a time, for example he usually speaks Mandarin when doing business in China because “many people have trouble communicating in English.” He believes awareness of other cultures through familiarity with the languages is very advantageous in both business and social relations.
“Multilingual people tend to be sensitive to there being many ways of saying the same thing, and how in the various ways of saying that one thing, there may be a difference in nuance or emphasis,” Leung said.
Although being proficient in more than one language can be beneficial, the different aspects of each language can merge or become muddled, making it more confusing for multilingual students to put ideas into words, according to Gunnarsson.
“When I’m writing and talking, I’ll sometimes forget words in English, but I’ll remember them in Swedish, and then I’ll be able to remember them in English, too, and vice versa,” Gunnarsson said.
Although Leung has always been able to speak several languages, he said multilingual people may have imperfect grasp of one particular language in their repertoire.
“For me, each language and the vocabulary I have in each language tends to be quite specific,” Leung said. “As a consequence, each language accentuates a different part of my personality.”
Kinebuchi said learning pronunciation, using slang words and speaking comfortably are the most challenging parts of language acquisition. For Gunnarsson and Wang, grammar was the most difficult to learn in Spanish. As a teacher, Balden tries to remedy this by emphasizing the importance of repetition in speaking and practicing Spanish.
“I use [the language] as much as possible,” Kinebuchi said. “For example, when I was learning Korean, I would watch [Korean shows] with subtitles and then without, so I could learn.”
Balden, Kinebuchi and Wang feel more closely tied to their own cultural roots because they know how to speak their ancestral languages and to their non-native languages and cultures.
“I spent a lot of time in Spain and Latin America, and I’ve made a lot of connections with people living there — connections that you would not have if you did not have that language and put yourself in that culture,” Balden said.
Although knowing foreign languages and the cultures they come from is a valuable resource, newly acquired languages are seldom the first choice for communication among multilingual students.
“I definitely use my own languages more,” Kinebuchi said. “Spanish is fun, but I never get the chance to use it because no one speaks to me in it.”
Wang speaks Chinese with his family, English with his friends and French during the occasional moments when he is “feeling fancy.” Adapting to these daily circumstances allows Wang to be “more integrated in society.”
“I lived in Montreal, and because I knew French, I didn’t get discriminated against,” Wang said. “But if you lived in Montreal and you didn’t know French, [you would be] kind of screwed.”
Conversely, despite being of Chinese descent, Michelle Zhao (10) is unable to speak or understand the language and never had the desire to learn it.
“It’s difficult to communicate with my relatives, although I don’t feel like it culturally distances me because I don’t really engage in obvious Chinese cultural traditions with my fellow Chinese peers,” Zhao said.
Zhao, born and raised in the United States, feels more American than Chinese, but does not attribute that to speaking only English.
“It’s not really the knowledge of languages [that defines me], but rather how I’ve lived my life so far,” Zhao said. “It’s the fact that I’ve grown up in America as opposed to only knowing English [that I have immersed myself in American culture].”
According to Balden, it is ultimately worthwhile for a person to develop a connection across two different cultures and two different languages, even if it is not a language that one will use frequently.
The snippets of phrases in Chinese and Korean, combined with selections of Spanish and French, among others, benefit those who are able to manage the intricacies of languages from all over the globe, despite minor difficulties.