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When I Met Another Penta-lingual in Tokyo

When I Met Another Penta-lingual in Tokyo

By James H. Choi
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Photo: Kabukicho district

I speak four languages reasonably but, depending on circumstances, can speak five. The fifth is Spanish, of which I took only one semester in college where I mostly learned how to modify Portuguese into Spanish. About 30 percent of the vocabularies overlap anyway, and about another 30 percent I can manipulate in order to make it sound funny but make sense to Spanish speakers. For instance, Portuguese words that begin with “ch” begin with “ll” in Spanish. So “chover” (to rain) in Portuguese becomes “llover” in Spanish.  “Chegar” (to arrive) becomes “llegar”.  And so on.  So, I blindly apply it to other words that start with “ch” and carefully monitor the listener’s expression to see if it worked.

Thanks to this similarity, I can figure out quite a bit of Spanish on the fly.  So when no Spanish speakers are around, I shamelessly declare myself a penta-lingual.  How I self-describe my fluency in each language depends solely on who’s around me.  If nobody is around to test my fluency in a particular language, I raise my capabilities a couple notches using vague, singularly untestable claims such as “I can carry a nice conversation.”

While in Japan, I saw no threat of running into Spanish speakers bent on exposing my fraud, so I presented myself as a penta-lingual.  Of course, I was very humble about my Japanese abilities, but as for my English, Korean, Portuguese AND Spanish, as far as anyone knew, I spoke fluently.

This impressed a colleague on the exchange program with me.  One day, he told me he ran into another penta-lingual at his workplace, NHK. Because I am a fake penta-lingual, I immediately smell fraud when others claim to be one.  It takes one to know one.  My suspicions grew when I learned this other penta-lingual spoke exactly the five languages I did, language for language.  What were the chances?

I couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which someone would learn English, Korean, Portuguese, Japanese, and Spanish.  First off, I instantly suspected he knew either Portuguese or Spanish and was faking the other.  But the other three aren’t interchangeable in any way, thus I was not able to explain those away.

But, who would learn these five languages?  What a waste of time!  One could do so much taking on other productive pursuits in life!  He must been caught by the circumstances like me, and must have been forced to learn a few of those out of necessity, and fake some out of vanity.  I had to meet him, and apparently he felt the same way about me.

Probably he smelled fraud on me, too.
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Info/English/SpecialEvents.gifWe finally met one night at Asahi beer garden in Ginza.

It turns out we shared far more than I’d ever dreamt.

Born in Korea, he had immigrated to Brazil to study high school — at my high school: Colégio Bandeirantes.  He was my upperclassman! We had the same math and Portuguese teachers!!  And I found him in Tokyo.  This coincidence jarred me for some time, and still baffles me even today.

Afterward, he went to Texas for college and, finally, Japan to work.  And yes: His Spanish was fake, just like mine.

Needless to say, his Japanese was far better than mine.  Furthermore, he turned out to be the only one who talked straight about my Japanese abilities.  I’d blown up my ego about my Japanese because everyone was complementing it during my stay in Japan — until he told me, “James. If you study Japanese another three years, you’d speak it pretty well.”  I felt the pain of my deflated head hitting the hard granite floor of Asahi Beer Garden as I heard those words.   “Three years” was endlessly echoing in my head.  But I was grateful I met someone who understands exactly where I came from, how I was shaped, and would talk straight to me.  In fact, I still remember an expression that he corrected for me that night.  If I ever have to examine my Japanese level again, I would trust no one — not even the SAT which gave me 780 out of 800 — but him.

My English appeared to be slightly better than his, though, and our Portuguese and Korean were about the same.  So suddenly I had a dilemma for the first time: In what language do I speak to him?  I could say anything to him in any language, and he would understand.  It was the first and the last time (so far) it happened to me.  You’d think that’d facilitate our conversation.  But, on the contrary, almost every sentence became a challenge.

My upperclassman had come with his coworker, the boss of my friend at NHK, and my colleague who introduced us was there, too.  The four of us spoke late into the night.  When all of us were talking, we used Japanese or English, the common language for all of us.  But when I talked to my upperclassman privately, I constantly had to select a language.  Some languages are better at expressing various thoughts.  Expressions in one language, such as “Murphy’s Law” in English, become much longer expression in other languages.  Because of this, when I think, my thoughts are constantly shifting among languages.  Swear words happen in Portuguese, logical thoughts happen in English, and so on — although I don’t think in my fake Spanish even when I want to fake something.

I’m so used to translating my multilingual thoughts into monolingual conversation that not having to do it was actually harder.  Fascinated by this chance to use my “native mode” of speaking for the first time, and eager to make the most of it, I actually began to look for optimal expressions among the five four languages.  It probably cost me more energy than talking to a monolingual person with whom I would have no concern for any optimization of intermediary, raw, thought-forming process.  But with my upperclassman, I was able to dump my raw data, thus I was trying to shape the raw data itself into a more refined form.  I think.

In the end, I ended up mixing all four in an inconsistent manner.  He also did likewise, answering me in whatever language I used.  We talked and laughed on many topics late into warm and humid summer night in Tokyo until the subway’s last train forced us apart.

One might think two people who share so much in background and communication bandwidth would become close friends.  But after this night, we lost touch.  Just like me, my upperclassman was aloof, caring little about retaining contact.  When two detached people meet, they lose touch easily, as we did.  I’ve even forgotten his name.  He worked at NHK in 1994 and just had a baby at that time.  And he would be known to be penta-lingual.   If you know him, please forward this article to him.  I’d like to see him again.


Categories: Japan, Language Tags: ,
  1. August 14, 2013 at 7:08 am

    Scary 😮 I’m fake pentalingual too: Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, and fake Spanish (well, less fake than yours 😉 I actually studied Spanish in school and read/understand it quite well, just can’t speak a single word of it). Also learning Japanese now.

    It was interesting reading about your troubles converting thought into speech, since I am constantly frustrated by it as well. It’s almost impossible to express a thought in a single language, since some language just have better words for a certain thought. For me it’s quite the opposite though. I prefer just speaking a crazy mix of many languages with people, and get even more frustrated when I’m forced to limit myself to one vocabulary set.

    Much like you guys I’m very detached as well. Each time I move I more or less lose contact with all my old friends (even if it’s just a neighboring town). I’m pretty sure that aloofness is a defense mechanism we developed to protect ourselves emotionally from the moving around or something 😉

    Loved the article!

    • August 14, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      Thank you for taking time to leave a reply. Nunca tinha pensado que a minha personalidade tinha algo a ver com o meu passado, como eu tinha que mudar de países. Mas agora que leio o que você disso, vejo que poderia ter uma relação. Mas é um experimento que não poderá ser repetido ou controlado, pelo menos para mim. Foi bom ler seu comentário. Obrigado.

  2. August 16, 2013 at 2:17 am

    E verdade… seria difficil reproduzir esse experimento, mesmo se eu quisesse 😉
    Obrigado pela resposta.

  3. Musiclover
    September 8, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Interesting reading, as I’m a polyglot too:
    – French for everyday use;
    – English. Well, we’re colonized people…
    – German, industrial-strength language for translation (if you don’t have the word, just create it);
    – Schwytzerdütsch (swiss dialect). Very near to old German (Mittelhochdeutsch), incredibly savoury. E. g. a bike can be called “Drohtesel” ~ “wire ass” (that’s _asinus_, not the back end of your person);
    – Russian, a bit rusty but I’m catching up since I started surfing the ‘Net;
    – Italian. I read it without trouble and speak it well enough that people answer me _too fast_ (different etiquette with strangers, the Japanese seem more polite);
    – smatterings of Portuguese (which I can read, sort of), Spanish, Flemish/Dutch (I can read a paper, but it’s everywhere the same mush, so no great glory).

    So as long as I stay in Europe, I can get by most of the time with a kind of “basic indoeuropean” (and some handwaving), drawing from the mediterranean, german or slavic tribes as befits.
    Just had some difficulties in Poland, where it was not always clear if I should switch my (neural) circuits to “german” or to “russian”.

    The same differences of expressiveness pertain to programming languages: you won’t write the same algorithm the same way in Lisp, Fortran or Mathematica…

  4. September 8, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts and experiences. On the computer languages, I have felt that RPN logic of HP calculators was close to verb-at-the-end Korean/Japanese language and TI calculators were closer to subject-verb-object Latin derived languages.

  5. Joseph
    March 10, 2015 at 9:01 am

    what is fake spanish?

    • March 10, 2015 at 1:15 pm

      Fake Spanish is when you modify Portuguese a little bit based on some general rules to make it sound like Spanish but getting it wrong all the time because there are too many exceptions to the general rule.

  6. Andreas
    July 15, 2015 at 10:48 am

    I havent really thought about actually faking multilinguality in that way… Anyways, I get what you mean about the raw data part, even though I can currently only claim to be fully fluent in two languages it is strange to sometime having to change between English and Norwegian simply to express myself properly. In this case English simply has such a large vocabulary that some things seem far easier to say in English. Currently brushing up on my German abilities to and I’m learning Japanese so hopefully I can claim to be quadralingual in a couple of years, or maybe I should say Hexalingual (if that is even a thing) since Danish and Swedish share so much with Norwegian that I can easily communicate with Danish and Swedish people using Norwegian (well, most of the time).

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