The Language Learning Journey: From Three Years Old to Today

an essay on childhood kitchens, ordering Parisian hot chocolates and failed match-making attempts

Nyse Vicente
Aug 20, 2020 · 5 min read
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cottonbro on Pexels

Running into my childhood kitchen symbolised future happiness. Before my grandma could catch me, my small hands had already pulled out her collection of pots and pans, arranged them in the most artistic way a three year old can fathom and began clanging one against another. Whilst I kept working on being the next Ringo Starr, my grandmother would make magic with her hands kneading and mixing and baking until her secret formulas resulted in ‘doce de arroz’ or bolinhos de chuva or bolo de chocolate. Until this day Grandma’s cooking evoke a sense of childhood nostalgia, like the scent of vanilla ice cream, theme parks and birthday cakes. And now it’s my turn to learn, to chop and stir and bake and knead. I can’t promise I’m half as good as D. Maria, but sure as heck I’ll try.

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Bruno Figureido on Unsplash

If Portuguese meant grandma’s cooking and looking at dinosaur remains carefully preserved near the valley close to our apartment (there was a universal accord that no one would touch it, it belonged to the land), English would resemble something completely different. Portuguese came on slowly and surely, the way a child learns, English came on all at once. Portuguese was open beaches. English was elementary school and stuffy uniforms. As proficiency increased, so did what English resemble expand. It transfigured into Shakespeare, Milton, Fitzgerald, politics, sociology, philosophy and maths. Somewhere along the way, I learnt books didn’t give you some self-imposed pressure to speak well, heck, books knew the struggles you dealt with. This was a different kind of English, more colourful and exciting compared to the drab world of rote memorisation. There was solace in Jane Austen’s Emma, a notoriously awful matchmaker (to my school friends, I’m sorry), I was Lucy in Narnia fighting off the White Witch, I was Maia running off to Brazil or Charlie eating a wealth of sweets. English provokes both a sense of academia and country roads as it does protests, political discourse and debate. It is multi-faceted and why shouldn’t it be? As Paul Valery said ‘a human being is a complicated creature, more complicated than his thoughts are’.

But French too has evolved over time. When I was eight, going to France was at first nothing more than a momentary relief. The architecture, Parisian apartments, cafe culture, and subtle pronunciation that glided off the tongues of women clad in black on black and unkempt hair brought something closer to home. I knew then I would learn French. And goodness I would do it by force. Heaven forbid if I ordered a hot chocolate in Lyon and the cashier spoke to me in English. I didn’t know it then but my philosophy of ‘You should learn a little of the language you stay in’ was born. My stresses could be in the wrong place, and mix up ‘la’ and ‘le’, I spoke, and I wore it like a badge of honour. Over time I discovered French literature, the nation’s pride on its culture and history and fell in love with it too. Don’t I know how much I yet have to learn, but it’s a process, pas a pas.

And Russian feels like something fresh, forming into the tangible, solidifying but not quite there. The potential that hasn’t metamorphosed into actuality. Not quite, not yet. We need more Russian diaries, and language lessons and speaking partners to cross that road. The further I walk, the more cross-cultural connections reveal themselves before me. Each language accentuates the uniqueness of another, whilst simultaneously displaying similarities. It is a bit of a paradox, but a fun one at that. Russian is rich in diminutives. Portuguese likewise. French words like avant-garde, bijouterie, and magasin are the same in Russian. Its grammar resembles German. But then, Russian is more than just sounds and grammar. There’s something sentimental, and profound.

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братья карамазовы 1968

It was Dostoevsky who wrote “ For no one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime,”, evoking ideas of personal responsibility, the self and the shadow. Does our essence contain more evil than our flesh would let on? Or perhaps we are blind to our own contemptible weakness, and the people before us reflect our own dis-fractured psyche. Does evil begin when man abandons God, and how do we come before Him to deliver us from ourselves? These are the kind of questions asked in Russian classes of literature and philosophy. They are edifying, refreshing. Like rain that licks at your face on a hot day. In the Russian language, seldom is the question on the existence of evil questioned, but rather the question of how we should work with the apparent forces at play is framed. The Gulag Archipelago is a testament to that.

And whilst Russian makes us toy with questions on the soul, evil and suffering and nature and freedom, Chinese is still playful. That’s the only word I can use to describe it, playful, youthful, like Nyse playing close to the dinosaur remains. Maybe because I’m usually the youngest amongst my Chinese friends, and have been called 宝宝 (baby) , but who knows. It doesn’t matter. It’s evolving right before my eyes. It’s normal for me to send pictures of the food of the day as a way to show I’m well, and conversations touch on travelling and linguists. A little like Spanish, but at the same time not at all.

We will wait and see. Until then, I will speak and I will learn and I will find how the language develops right before me.

If you are looking for language partners to improve your foreign language skills you can find one for free at swaplanguage.com. Additionally, you can join our weekly free live Spanish and Danish lessons. Grammar, vocabulary and culture, taught by native speakers.

Nyse Vicente

Written by

Languages and Culture Writer. Fiction featured on PS Journal, Anak Sastra and Short Fiction Break amongst other publications. Believer. Real-life Dreamer.

Swap Language

We write about breaking down cultural and language barriers between people.

Nyse Vicente

Written by

Languages and Culture Writer. Fiction featured on PS Journal, Anak Sastra and Short Fiction Break amongst other publications. Believer. Real-life Dreamer.

Swap Language

We write about breaking down cultural and language barriers between people.

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