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A Lifetime of Learning Foreign Languages
Awakening an Interest in Learning Languages
I have had an interest in languages throughout almost all of my life. When Sister Julian taught English sentence diagramming in the sixth grade, I was fascinated. Later, as a member of the Foreign Language Club in the ninth grade or first year of high school, I marveled at the many foreign languages and cultures in the world which Mrs. Faust introduced.
Learning foreign languages for communication, however, did not interest me until I started learning Chinese Mandarin in the Navy and using it while in Taiwan.
Throughout my life, I have learned eight languages so far. In this article, I discuss the foreign languages which I have learned and how they have benefitted my life.
When I was a high school Freshman, I chose Latin as an elective. It was one of the best subjects I selected, because Latin introduced me to learning a new language, ancient culture, and helped me in studying and learning other languages, especially English.
The rigors of learning Latin vocabulary and grammar turned out to benefit me very much when later studying Spanish in high school. Knowledge of Latin vocabulary also helped me to figure out the meaning of English words formed from Latin prefixes, suffixes, and root words. For example, the English word aqueduct would have been difficult to determine without knowing Latin. But because "aqua" means water, and "duct" means to lead, I understand that an aqueduct is a structure which transports water.
Spanish Language Use in the United States
After taking Latin for two years in high school, I enrolled in Spanish when I was a Junior. I wasn't really interested in developing listening and speaking skills. Spanish was chosen as an elective because I knew that as a Romance language it was very close to Latin and easy to learn.
Although reading and writing skills were emphasized during my two years of Spanish, I did get to apply my limited knowledge of Spanish listening and speaking on one occasion. On a trip to a lake with my parents, I met a young Mexican boy and was able to strike up a conversation in Spanish. You can imagine how excited I was to be able to use Spanish as a communicative tool.
During my college undergraduate years, I elected to sign up for three semesters of German. I did this for two primary reasons: one, to satisfy a foreign language requirement needed for a Bachelor of Science degree; and two, a reading knowledge of German was needed for any student like me who was planning to do graduate work in chemistry.
My three semesters of German were solely devoted to learning vocabulary and developing reading knowledge. During the third semester, more German history and culture was introduced. There was no emphasis at all on listening and speaking.
As a first-year graduate student in chemistry, I remember learning one semester of French. The purpose of this course was to develop a reading knowledge of French needed to do research in chemistry. French listening and speaking skills were not addressed in this class.
How many foreign languages have you learned?
Learning Chinese Mandarin
While taking aptitude tests during Navy basic training, it was discovered that I had a talent for learning foreign languages. For this reason, the Navy assigned me to a 37-week intensive aural-comprehension Chinese Mandarin course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.
Over nine months, I developed listening and speaking skills which I was able to apply during a Navy tour in Taiwan during the period 1968-1970. I was able to use my skills not only on the job but also in communicating with the local Chinese and Taiwanese during my non-duty time.
Following a discharge from the Navy in 1971, I continued my Chinese study at the University of Wisconsin. I enrolled in a graduate program in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature and took classes in advanced vernacular and classical Chinese as well as linguistics and Chinese history courses.
After three semesters and one summer session of intensive study, I went back to Taiwan with the intention of learning Chinese and literature at National Taiwan University. Instead, I got married to a local Taiwanese and spent the next six years teaching ESL and doing translation work. I was definitely applying my listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills.
In 1980 I obtained employment with the federal government as a Chinese translator. I did this work for 27 years until my retirement from federal service in 2007.
While with the government, I received more advanced instruction in Mandarin which included one year of study in Taiwan during the period 1984-1985.
I learned Taiwanese after I got married and lived in Taiwan in the 1970s. With the exception of six months of classroom study, all of my Taiwanese was self-taught and learned from communicating with my Taiwanese wife. Later, while working for the government, I was able to do some Taiwanese translation and interpreting.
Chinese Haw Mountainous Area in Thailand
Learning Chinese Haw
While working with the government prior to my work assignment in Thailand, I learned Chinese Haw for six months. Chinese Haw is a dialect of Chinese Yunnanese which is spoken throughout the mountainous Burmese border areas of northern Thailand.
Thai is the last language which I have learned so far. My first course in Thai was at Berlitz in the United States prior to my work with the government in Thailand. While in Thailand, I also received tutorials in Thai so that I could better do my job. Thai has also helped me in communication with my present wife who is Thai.
Of all the languages I have learned, I can use and communicate the best in Chinese Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Thai. Learning languages will always be my passion, and I am currently trying to learn how to speak Isan or Northeastern Thai which is a Thai dialect. I would like to learn this dialect since it is my wife's native dialect in addition to Thai which she learned in school.
© 2015 Paul Richard Kuehn