Speaking and Striving in German, English, Japanese, and Romansh

An Interview with Luca Denser (my Brother)

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about what it is like to grow up in three different countries (“On Anxiety and Assimilation”). Luckily, I did not have to go through this experience on my own, as my brother was also exposed to the same language environment as me, with, however, some crucial differences. While I settled down in Switzerland—or at least for the time being—, my brother decided to move to Japan and start a life as a photographer (and various other things; to see what he has been up to,
check him out on Instagram: @lucadenser). Already having learned Romansh (one of the four official languages of Switzerland) as a child, he is now tackling Japanese. Here is a glimpse into his language learning process:

Kristina Denser (Kristina): Which languages do you speak and for what reasons did you want to learn them?
Luca Denser (Luca): German (mother tongue), Romansh (fluent), English (fluent), Japanese (conversational).
Learning these was pretty much due to situational circumstances, like moving to the countries where the corresponding languages are spoken. I’ve been studying Japanese semi-seriously for about one and a half years now, mainly due to the reason that I want to communicate with the locals and make my life as easy as possible here, without the problem of language barriers. I also regard it as a sign of respect and thus top priority to study the language of the country one has been welcomed in.

Kristina: Out of these languages, which one is the closest to your heart and why? Do you feel like you act differently according to the language you are speaking?
Luca: Switching between languages sometimes feels like switching between personas. But of course, it also depends on the person you are talking to and how that relationship shapes your behavior. Still, I would say German and Romansh seem closest to my heart, probably due to friends and family. But I think the more fluent one becomes, the closer a language gets.

Kristina: Did learning a new language change the way you were perceived by native speakers of these languages? Did you feel more as a part of a certain community?

Luca: Yes, absolutely. When it comes to socializing and getting to know people better, speaking the same language only comes with advantages.

Kristina: For German speakers, Japanese seems to be perceived as a rather hard language to learn. How do you feel about this?
Luca: Yes, definitely not easy. But I think the hardest thing is to establish the
linguistic basis. After that, it seems to flow more easily. As soon as there’s a basic understanding, a lot can be achieved much faster.

Kristina: Were there frustrating moments when learning Japanese? What kept you motivated?
Luca: Living in Japan surely keeps you motivated. Being exposed to the culture, the people, and everything related to the language makes learning much more exciting and also keeps the motivation up. Like I said before, it feels like a responsibility as well, as I’m glad to live here and want to show my gratitude. Learning Japanese is the key to everything Japanese culture harbors. That being said, I also find there’s a lot of beauty to find in a language, especially Japanese. What’s more, it’s very fun and amusing to impress Japanese people.

Kristina: What would be your best tip for people who are starting to learn a new language?
Luca: Begin talking to people as early as possible. There will be lots of things you won’t understand at the beginning, which is frustrating, but there are just as many things to be learned in a conversational setting, such as pronunciation and nuance, which are quite underestimated. Also, when living in your country of choice, be sure to constantly try to read street signs, posters, or anything you might find while walking around outside. And: Always study those words and phrases related to your everyday life. Don’t ignore them, as they’ll always be there to bug you. So, it’s better to just confront them, be it the unintelligible train announcement or the pesky letter from the city office.

Grammar Shaming

I was talking to a colleague from university (a brilliant postdoc in literature) about a student of mine who did not know—or did not recognize among a few examples—what an article, such as the or a, was: “Oh, I have never heard of prepositions or verbs or those other things you mentioned, but I think I know this one, the article: It is like when you hear the news… No, sorry, read, like… in a paper.” My colleague was speechless, and we both agreed it was actually basic primary school knowledge, so I ended up asking myself “How are people like that even supposed to learn a language?”, and “How could I possibly teach them a language?”. Plus, my colleague and I both hate replying with “It is like when…”: If I ask you “What is a noun?”, the only possible correct answer is bound to contain the structure “It is a noun” (not “It is like when …” or anything of the sort). I remembered, as well, the question asked by one of my professors when I told him that I taught German classes and many students would not know what cases were. “How can you teach German to someone who ignores the concept of case?”. To us, “the linguists”, these are “primary school basics”. During our little complaining session, another colleague, though, who was sitting next to us, quickly turned around and said “Come on, stop the grammar shaming, it is not nice, and not everyone is supposed to know what an article is—I wouldn’t know either if I wasn’t a literature student.” How right she was. I felt very bad and ashamed of myself; I thought about it all night and the day after… I found out that grammar shaming actually exists as a form of shaming—and it was exactly what I was doing. Me, the teacher who teaches “people who ignore what cases are” and is actually happy and proud to take A1 courses because she finds teaching the basics much more interesting…

Well, I am just a human being, I guess, and as such I am more judgmental than I would like to admit—even if I try not to be. Anyway, this episode was a good reminder that I should not take anything for granted when I walk into a classroom, and that there is no shame in not knowing things. I remember too well how I felt when my boyfriend looked at me as if I was an alien, laughed at me, and said, sarcastically: “Ehm, what? You don’t know how to solve this?! You must be kidding… I mean, seriously… This is basic general knowledge!!!.” Well no, it was not. Not to me, since it was programming (and I had been programming for 2 weeks back then), and I had a master’s degree in Ancient Greek, thank you very much. Such discussions would take place and still take place quite often, come to think of it. My natural reaction would be to study and learn, and study and learn, and study and learn, in order not to feel that mix of shame and guilt and insecurity…

But then again, we are only humans and thus cannot be experts in every field of what is “learnable”. Of course, there are people who learn better “by heart” or only through examples and react allergically to any general grammar notion. Nevertheless, it can be a good thing to spend a little time and energy and try to learn at least some of the basics. Why? Because it saves time and frustration, both for students and teachers. First of all, if we all “speak the same language”, further explanations will become easier. If your teacher says “Careful, we are talking about the past, but you are using the verb in the present tense”, but you don’t have any idea what verb, tense, present, or past mean, this remark won’t help you at all, and you wouldn’t even understand what your mistake was. Most importantly, though, is that the language, any language, is a system that has more or fewer rules. Like in a game, say, chess (this is not a random example, and if you are interested in it, google “De Saussure language chess”): If you don’t have any clue of the rules, you cannot play, you will just be moving pieces desperately instead, or… not making any moves at all; nothing would make sense to you—or to the other player, regardless of whether they know how to play or not.

Another advantage of knowing the basics of grammar is that they are transversally present in many languages: They are mostly categories, principles. While you might not be able to see them sometimes, that doesn’t mean they’re not present (e.g. the popular “Leave me alone with that accusative; in English we don’t have direct objects!”). Knowing what things are or might be is relaxing and helps you understand the new rules or the new system more quickly. Imagine you are in front of a new board game you don’t know, but you recognize it has dice: You will probably start with that—and it would feel nice, as in: “Okay, I don’t know what it means in this game, but I will probably have to roll the dice at some point and find a correspondent question, player, number of steps to go…”. I must say, many school systems fail to provide their students with the “primary school basics” of grammar. After I explained the concept of articles to my student, she asked me with a very upset expression: “Why, oh why did no one teach me this before?!”. Another reason why you should never feel ashamed and I should never grammar shame anyone… Not knowing is never a fault, especially when no one has ever told you! Learning (and teaching) a foreign language can be a very good opportunity to fill the gaps. There is no shame in learning the basics of grammar, and that could be the key, the real skeleton key (or passkey) to any language as well as a happy, more relaxed, and more conscious learning experience.

They say the more languages you speak, the more you will learn, and think about vocabulary in particular. However, the underlying structures, the rules, having a clue of how things usually work, or what they are called, are an even greater help. Find the rules, break the system—the code, to use a term from the linguistics—; break it once, and it will be easier the next time. It is impossible to learn everything by heart, but learn the rules and how they work (if not why), and you will save a lot of energy and spare yourself a lot of frustration. Learn once that German can combine words in order to make new ones, and that in the process the “most important part” (semantically and grammatically) is the last one, and you will increase your vocabulary by 300%. Very few words will sound weird, and you will never think again that German has very long, incomprehensible words: Just break them down into pieces that you know. Maybe you won’t recognize all of the pieces, but what you already know will usually be enough (and if not, you will at least know which “part” you still need to learn or look up in a dictionary). Find out what Lego pieces you have in the language and how they can or cannot be combined. Once you’re done, you will just need to try and become good at guessing what you do not know yet… and you already are, we all are, because—here comes the good news—languages are not just any systems, but they are “human” systems, i.e. they were created by humans who followed a logic, a human logic, so any human would be able to learn any language. A specific language is just the product of an innate, inherited ability which is shared by every human being: the ability to speak and talk. Now, which language you end up learning or speaking is just a matter of geography. So, no more excuses like “I was not born to learn German, Russian, Italian etc.”, and no more grammar shaming.