The Journey to Becoming Multilingual: Why Stop at Learning Just One World Language?
A personal account on learning Spanish, French and Arabic in the quest to become multilingual
Having grown up in a strictly Spanish-speaking household, learned French in high school and now Arabic in college, I believe I have come to know a thing or two about the challenges and benefits to learning multiple languages. The advantage of studying French as a bilingual speaker of Spanish and English was substantial, but nothing compared to learning Arabic during college. Here is the story of how I managed to become multilingual.
Originally from Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican immigrant neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, I spoke mostly Spanish growing up at home and on the streets. In order to preserve our culture and heritage, my parents made a point of always communicating with my younger sister and me in Spanish.
During high school, I became fascinated with the French language after participating in a two-week student exchange program to Paris in 2008. I loved my experiences abroad so much that I started to study French on my own by attempting to read any book I could get my hands on, watching films and listening to music. With improved language skills, I traveled to Paris for a second time in 2010 and my host family noticed the progress I had made in my language abilities two years later.
Motivated to learn more, I decided to attend the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy hosted at Oberlin College in the summer of 2010. One of the reasons I chose the Academy is that it features Middlebury College’s unique pedagogical approach to language acquisition during four weeks of full language immersion. Having studied French formally for only three years at the time, I was placed into an advanced course in the French Language Academy, where I enjoyed a summer of reading on 19th century literature and even delivered a speech (entirely in French) at the closing ceremony!
Although my experience learning French did have its challenging moments, I truly believe my Spanish background helped me significantly when it came to understanding linguistic concepts typically found in Romance languages that are not present in English—like the subjunctive, for example.
When I arrived at Middlebury College for my undergraduate studies, I wanted to nurture my enthusiasm for languages. Although I continue to strengthen my French, I gravitated towards studying Arabic during my time here. Through the invaluable experience of having native speakers as professors during my first year, I was introduced to a deeply rich culture and history through learning Arabic.
The sounds of Arabic musicians Fairouz and Umm Kalthoum served as a background for me while I sat down to complete homework assignments. In a matter of months, my “Francophilia” quickly turned into an intense “Arabophilia,” which ultimately led me to pursue a major in Middle East Studies. I attended Middlebury's intensive, eight-week Language School for Arabic at Mills College in preparation for my academic year abroad in Jordan for the fall semester in 2013. During that time, I attained high proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic, as well as the Levantine regional dialect while abroad.
After overcoming the initial challenge of writing right to left in an unknown alphabet, perhaps the most difficult part about learning Arabic was the phonetic challenge of producing different sounds and attempting to sound as much like a native speaker as possible. However, exciting breakthroughs in my study of Arabic—namely discovering roots and patterns—have demonstrated its logic and relative simplicity, while giving me an appreciation for the all the hard work that it takes to arrive at that level of understanding.
Having reached high proficiency in French by way of Spanish and now with my knowledge of Arabic, I look forward to acquiring a second Semitic language this fall by studying Modern Hebrew. Although it has been challenging at times, learning languages has been an immensely gratifying experience because it provides the tool of communication to arrive at a better cultural understanding.
Are you bilingual, multilingual, or in the process of learning a new language? I would love to hear about your language acquisition journeys in the comment section.
Photo courtesy of xlibber