“Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem.” I found this Czech proverb through the internet—it means if you know only one language, you live only once. It’s a very profound way to think about the importance of learning various languages: that we live another life for every language we can speak, and I quite agree. Having been raised in another culture and language, I have, throughout the years, come to appreciate the importance of understanding another language—and through studying different languages, learned to appreciate my native tongue.
My first language was not English, although it was a very close second. I’m not quite sure what my first words were, but I remember speaking Tagalog (a regional language in the Philippines) ever since. Before I went to kindergarten, my mother taught me how to write a few words on paper, which were, surprisingly, not in Tagalog; instead, the first words I have ever written (apart from my own name) were apple and boy—English words. My schoolbooks from early on were written in English; so were the children’s books and dictionaries and most other things I read. Even though we spoke Tagalog most of the time, the medium of instruction in school was English. Before I graduated from elementary school, I was already as comfortable using English as I was using Tagalog. By the time I entered high school, my preferred language was already English. It was apparent that in our impoverished country, only the people who could speak and write in English well were considered to be the well-educated—the elites. Students who could barely utter an English sentence without stuttering and mixing the p’s and the f’s (and the b’s and the v’s) were laughed at, mocked for not being able to speak English. Back then, I strongly believed that English was the only language that was worth using. Sure, it was perfectly fine to learn another language if you can, but English is the best. Why shouldn’t it be, when the movies I liked watching were all in English, and the novels I so fondly read were also in English?
My perspective on things started to change when I began to study Japanese and Korean. I had been fond of Japanese anime ever since I was a kid, but I was only fascinated with the drawings and not the language. Then I began to watch Korean and Japanese movies with subtitles, and everything started from there—there was a subtlety and poignancy in the movies that I never really saw before, and I wanted more. Before long, I wanted to learn the languages so I could make do without subtitles. After all, there’s only so much subtitles can do to translate the meaning, the nuance, the subtleties, from one language into another.
Fast forward to 2011, and here I am, fascinated not only with East Asian languages but with other languages, including my very own. I am still far from being fluent in the languages I am learning, but I have come so very far from the English-centered person that I was before. Whenever I look back to who I was then, I realize how narrow my perspective was. It was like I was looking at a wide world with tunnel vision: I think I’m seeing a lot because that’s what I see every single day, yet in reality I am only seeing very little. Learning a new language makes me understand and appreciate another culture, and I think that’s what this world lacks: a better understanding of the myriad of cultures around the world and the beautiful differences that we have from one another. It’s like looking at the various colors of the rainbow: the range of colors is what makes the rainbow beautiful. Imagine a world made up of only one hue, wouldn’t that be boring? It’s the very same with languages and cultures—if your world was only made up of one language and you only know your own culture, your world is infinitely limited to what you’re exposed to, when there’s still so much you can see of other people’s lives and their world.
I think it’s a shame that some people think it’s unnecessary to learn another language apart from their own. I’ve met a few people who are astounded that I’m even trying to learn, given that it’s a difficult process to study a new language; I’ve met some who tried learning another language but stopped after a month, thinking that they’re not actually learning anything. But language learning was never meant to be a simple thing. Learning a new language is like going back to preschool: you have to re-learn everything from scratch—from simple, kindergarten words like dogs and cats to politics and philosophy—everything. It’s not as simple as learning a few phrases such as “how much is this?” or “where is the bathroom?” Learning a new language is building up an entire life, an entire culture, block by block, and the minute you learn something new, you realize that there is still tons more to learn. It’s a tough road to take…but it’s very rewarding.
Now I shall go back to that Czech proverb I mentioned at the beginning: Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem. If you know only one language, you live only once. How many lives are you living right now?