Learning languages

There is a scene in the recent Wonder Woman movie in which the title character reveals that she speaks hundreds of languages. To prove it, she later has an exchange with a new acquaintance spanning several different languages worldwide, and also makes a major discovery (and advances the plot!) with her ancient foreign language literacy skills. So cool, right?

This scene echoed many major action / espionage films in which a main character speaks a foreign language fluently in order to accomplish their mission. The fluency is portrayed as another tool in the belt, like the fancy cars or gadgets at their disposal. In X-Men, 007, and Ocean’s Eleven films, big Hollywood actors throw out a few lines in heavily accented Chinese, Russian, whatever have you. Clearly, there is a fascination to speaking foreign languages effortlessly.

Granted, the fictional Wonder Woman not only speaks hundreds of languages, but also is fast enough to dodge bullets and super humanly strong since she is 1/2 goddess in origin. Of course, Hollywood suspends reality to promote fantasy because that makes for better films. We never see main characters pausing from saving the planet to perform logistical tasks such as going to the bathroom or picking up a bite to eat. The movies also don’t show these characters logging hundreds of hours of rote practice to learn languages enough to understand others and be understood.

We mere mortals need to work harder to acquire languages. As a native English speaker, I have pursued foreign languages zealously. And it has involved lots of textbooks, flashcards, listening and parroting, pausing and rewinding recordings to go back for missed words that flew past in a blur. Rinse and repeat… oh say, a thousand times. But when the words knit together, and when a conversation was had and meaning was exchanged, what an amazing feeling! I had used a decoder to unlock communication and clarity where before existed only confusion and guessing.

Candidly, my zeal for languages has been driven by “FOMO” a.k. a. “Fear of Missing Out,” a la Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Murray is bewildered when the director of the commercial talks avidly for minutes and the translation is repeatedly boiled down to two words: “More intensity.” Most of my Taiwanese grandparents did not speak English, and I relied on translations from my parents. Later, I pursued Chinese and Japanese myself to decode the older generations talking. For years, talking to Grandma was like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher and the womp womp sounds. After I mastered more Chinese and Japanese fluency things finally came into focus. Grandma was finally able to tell me in her own words to get married and have kids. Haha!

I learned Mandarin Chinese and the Taiwanese dialect starting at home from my immigrant parents, but mostly through weekend Chinese schools and higher education. I studied Spanish in secondary school for years, but went the extra mile by watching Univision, and listening to Shakira. I studied Japanese formally in higher education for years, but mostly learned by living in a rural Japanese town, talking to natives, and watching a ton of movies and stopping the screen whenever I encountered a new word so I could look it up in the dictionary.

There was also the Korean drama phase when I briefly studied Korean mostly to understand the popular hallyu TV shows sweeping Asia.

These days technology makes it easier than ever to learn a new language. No one has to carry around a paper dictionary; it’s all on Google Translate’s app on your phone. There I was yesterday, listening to Spotify’s “Learn Italian” playlist over and over again while walking around Golden Gate Park and repeating Italian phrases in preparation for an upcoming trip to Italy. Studying is half the battle, but true fluency needs humans at the other end. Witness the time I learned tons of Korean phrases for a trip to Korea, but didn’t know how to respond to the responses that came back from real Korean people.

Learning to speak foreign languages takes time and investment, but it’s worth it. Hollywood only shows us the finished product and not the unglamorous work behind it, but it also shows us the rewards. Foreign language fluency is a wonderful tool to have at your disposal and unlocks a whole new dimension to our world. It’s also great for eavesdropping (lol!) and it’s a fantastic party trick. Just watch the movies :-)