Behold the Power of Subtitles!

I am a geek.

I am a nerd.

I am a borderline otaku.

I love to escape reality and I love to challenge ideas and conceptions via fantastic scenarios. I love building worlds, I love realistic romance, I love watching/ reading characters develop slowly.

I raise my children in this manner as well, because it’s Awesome!

My seven year old son loves RPG video games. My five year old daughter could spend all her time with Legos or Minecraft. My four year old daughters favorite movie character is Darth Vader. My two year old daughter is in love with Dr. Who and recognizes the TARDIS instantly. … All because we, their parents love it too. My husband is an avid Gamer, manga reader, and computer tinkerer. I will watch a sci fi action packed cult classic over a trendy romantic comedy any day of the week and I often spend entire weekend evenings binge watching Anime in Japanese with English Subtitles.

It’s how we roll.

We don’t speak Japanese and I’ve never tried watching a show that wasn’t subtitled so Imagine my surprise, when visiting Washington DC last week, at my sudden understanding of a language that I have never tried to learn.

I have been actively trying to learn Spanish for almost 20 years. I think I have a mental block based on a combination of perfectionism and heritage. I’ve often been told (by native speakers) that I should be able to speak Spanish and that I have no excuse not to, which in turn makes speaking it badly socially unacceptable. I also tried to actively learn Latin and Ancient Greek in college. I was pretty decent with Latin but forgot most of it as soon as I stopped using it regularly. Ancient Greek… Let’s just say I never could remember that alphabet and u was lucky to scrape by with a D! This background made me think that I was just linguisticly challenged.

I thought that I would never be one of those people who could pick up another language. I also thought that the only way to learn a language was with a book and grammar lessons. However, my ideas are changing. I am beginning to realize that there are stages to learning a language.

1. You have to be able to recognize the language when it’s spoken. Even if you don’t understand what’s being said, the first step is to recognize what language your hearing. I can now sit in a room and pick out the differences between Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian. I can not fully understand what’s being said in those last three but I can tell which language is which.

2. Grasping the gist. The second phase of learning a new language is just being able to roughly understand a conversation. To understand the main idea even if you don’t know the meaning of every single word. I sometimes am at this level even when others are speaking English from another region or with a thick accent and I can do this with Japanese.

3. Understanding the spoken word. This is where I am with Spanish. You are able to roughly translate, understand complex conversations in a variety of dialects or accents and you feel comfortable with your comprehension.

4. Speaking in another language. At this point you are learning how to string together the words you have learned and put together coherent conversation (this can be as simple as my “name is” or as complex as describing how a refrigerator works). For some people 3 & 4 are interchangeable or happen at the same time. To each their own.

5. Writing. Once you have gotten comfortable to understand and speak casually then comes the task of learning actual grammar, rules, and proper constructs. I think this is why I’ve always had such a hard time with language classes. The writing and grammar portion is being taught alongside the introductions but there is no actual foundation in the language itself.

Unlike a child learning a first language (who spends a year just listening!) we expect a new learner to go from never having heard the language to speaking reading and writing simultaneously within three months. We do not look at breaking down the language, we do not try to introduce it, and we rarely hear other languages actually spoken.

That is why I felt like a failure when learning foreign languages. Yet here I am, eavesdropping on a family from Japan as they encourage and guide their children through a hands on craft project at a Museum in Washington DC. Sitting here, understanding the main gist of their conversation even though I have never taken a class or read a book with the intention of learning Japanese.

I lived in Japan for one year, I watch Anime in Japanese with English subtitles, and without realizing it, I have been learning Japanese, just like I learned Spanish and English as a kid.

I am in no way saying that lessons, software, or books are unnecessary. I believe that they are absolutely necessary for certain learners who want to be completely fluent eventually but they are not required to begin learning and they are not required for all learners. I would even go so far as to say they are not the most important thing you need to start learning a language.

I am not the first to say this either. Immersion language learning is well known as the most effective way to learn a new language but for some reason I never considered watching something with subtitles as a part of the immersion process. I never once considered that my fun, mindless activity would be my gateway to something as awesome as learning a new language and I certainly never believed that I could learn so much. I want to encourage others out there who may have believed the lie that they too couldn’t learn other languages because they couldn’t afford the classes or because they were not good at studying. Sometimes we just have to have fun and allow learning to happen naturally!

So before you spend hundreds of dollars on a language system, get on YouTube or Google and get used to hearing the language you want to learn. Then find movies or tv shows with subtitles in that language (they really exist in most languages!) and have fun. Listen to the music, watch a play and do things that get you comfortable with regularly hearing… Then start the formal work. After you can pick it out of a crowd.

Maybe this is just my unschooling philosophy at play but the truth is that it works. That is why we watch movies that we have memorized in Spanish as a family…even my non-readers know what words come next and then begin to associate Spanish words for the words they already know. This is why we list to Spanish music in the house. It is my fault that my children are not already fluent in Spanish but I plan on remedying that problem. I want them to speak the language of our heritage proudly and so my children are learning more and more all the time. Then one day, once they get comfortable with the two languages, we will add a third and they too will start watching Anime with subtitles.

Why?

Because subtitles can be totally awesome!beholdthepowerofsubtitiles.jpg

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