I wrote this article for the Language Café in the Netherlands.
My name is Charlotte, I speak six languages and am learning my seventh at the Language Café in Groningen. The first time I was walking down the street towards this café, I was excited; a café full of people speaking different languages and exchanging them… That was definitely going to be something for me!
I assimilate myself with being a third-culture kid; someone who has parents from two different cultures and who grows up in a third different culture. Thus I have two mother-tongues; French and Dutch. Having lived in Germany for a few years, I also acquired German, as small children easily do. When I was seven I moved to Australia and thus I also learnt English. Even though I have been living in Australia for ten years, I have been able to go back to Europe, even live in France for a few months and thus always use all of my languages. The first language which I actually ‘learnt’ was Japanese, which I studied in high school for three years. I used to be better, but I have lost a lot of this language as I have not been able to use it consistently after graduating.
The famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, once said that “learning another language is like becoming another person.” I cannot agree more with that. For me, language is a gateway into another culture and its people. In Japanese for example, there are different ways of talking according to the form of politeness one has to show to the other person. This cannot be expressed when speaking English. Sometimes, when speaking German for example, I want to describe something with a French word, because I cannot ‘see’ this thing in German. In Danish the word “hygellig” cannot be properly translated into English for example. One would describe “hygellig” maybe as ‘a sensation of comfort when being in a nice place surrounded by loved ones’, but even this sentence is inaccurate.
After living in Senegal (a country in West-Africa) for one year and having learnt Wolof, I felt like I had become a different person. While this feeling may be biased due to complete immersion into a foreign culture (and this would change anybody), I cannot emphasise enough how language transforms the way we see others, the way we perceive the world. Learning Japanese for example, made me understand the importance of detail; every stroke in the signs we wrote had to be precise, otherwise they could mean something else.
At the moment I am learning Spanish and hope to continue practicing it at the language café throughout my studies. I don’t know how I fell in love with languages, perhaps it was the constant moving around, talking to different people, that makes one curious to acquire more, but what I know, is that I cannot live without languages. Not only do they help us to communicate with others, but they also help us understand other cultures and sometimes, they help us understand ourselves.
photograph by Charlotte O.