The Tri-lingual Challenge: Language-Learning

Posted on June 5, 2009 by


I kinda say in my resume that I know three languages: English, Tagalog, and Spanish.

English from 16 years of schooling and 25 years of acculturation to America. Tagalog I picked up from my parents, relatives, and very sporadic trips to the PI.  Spanish is the language I took up in high school for 3 years.

Written Spanish is easy, but I cannot speak to save my life.  Just the other day, I was trying to tell a street vendor in Spanish that some kid had stolen some candy from her cart.  Only I suddenly forgot the words for “steal” and “candy”, so I tried in earnest to find substitutes and could only say the translation for “take” with no translation for “candy” except “la candia.”  Horrible, horrible, horrible.

But hey, if this was all written down, I could conjugated and give you the write words!

Meanwhile, Tagalog, I can’t write or recognize anything at all.  However, I speaking comes more “naturally” because I actually know phrases that I can bark back at people.

This is where I had a realization…

I realized that I learned Tagalog as chunks of phrases and reactions, but learned Spanish as mere literal “translations.”

I know Tagalog merely as spoken and based on my parents and relatives, I’ve learned how the language is used.  I know a lot of words in Spanish and can speak phrases, but I can’t actually recognize them phonologically when spoken by other people.

Perhaps that’s the difference between kid native language learners and language learners who are adults.  Kids learn languages as phrases and reactions as if that’s the natural way to do things.  Adults in the meanwhile, particularly from the English language and learning it via schools are inclined to translate words from the language they are learning back to their native language without learning to use it in real, every-day contexts.