Memorable Moments in Language Acquisition

  1. When you aren’t sure what language a conversation was in. Oddly enough, you can recall it in both.
  2. When you have a dream in your target language.
  3. When you no longer remember what the language sounded like when you didn’t understand it. (Note: Learning a language because you like the way it sounds is a self-defeating goal.)
  4. When you realize how terrible most translations are for Japanese movies, animes, books, etc.
  5. When you inadvertently use the target language for reflex words such as, 「痛っ!」 or 「よいしょ」.
  6. When you use the body language of the target language, such as waving a hand to beckon someone over.
  7. When onomatopoeias actually start sounding like the sounds they’re supposed to represent. (Hint: They sound nothing like the actual sound, your brain has just been brain-washed.)
  8. When you somehow knew the meaning of a word without ever actually having learned it (my favorite and most baffling moment).

Feel free to share your own memorable moments.

45 thoughts on “Memorable Moments in Language Acquisition

  1. I can see myself in some of these assertions, thanks for writing this article!

    よっし 、そっか〜、え〜(はいって意味じゃなくて、驚きの「え〜」) and じゃあ are expression I often use automatically.

  2. 9. When you don’t realize you’re speaking in the target language to a non-target language speaker until the look of confusion on their face makes you realize what just came out of your mouth.

    Re no. 7, I’ll never understand why a Japanese pig goes 「ぶ~ぶ~」. I may be brainwashed, but “oink” is a much closer approximation of the noise a pig makes.

  3. 10. When you look up the same word in the dictionary third times a day without beaing able to assimilate it.

  4. 11. When you understand something in the target language, but have no idea how to explain/translate that back into your mother language.
    12. When you start using words in the target language because you don’t know/remember how to express that concept in your original language.

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  5. When you recall a conversation you had in your target language… in a different language. (I once recalled in English parts of a conversation I had in Japanese.)

  6. Yes, yes, yes. I’ve experienced all of these and had a good chuckle out of reading this. Thanks. 🙂

  7. When you start making the filler noises of your target language (Japanese for me).
    I had friends come visit me in Japan last week and they were confused by my use of “un”. They kept thinking I was saying no. The “eeeeehhhhhhhh?!” had them snorting with laughter. I also didn’t realise how often my non-Japanese boyfriend and I use Japanese words between ourselves. Honto, daijoubu, nani and nantoka have completely usurped their English equivalents.

    I’m not at the stage yet where I can relate to most of the above points, but I’m definitely starting to see how bad a lot of subtitles are. I also do the body language thing.

  8. 8 is definitely my favourite too!

    11. (related to no. 5) When you find yourself talking to yourself in the other language, but don’t realise that you are.

    This one generally happens to me when I am in the middle of teaching an ENGLISH lesson, much to the amusement of my students.

    Number 7 is the source of one of my favourite stupid arguments I have with my boyfriend (he is Japanese, I am British) . He thinks that Cock-a-doodle-doo is hilarious, and then tries to counter my arguments that the Japanese words hardly sound like what they’re supposed to either by saying them over and over again whilst doing the kind of actions that the animal would be doing. Cute.

  9. I would disagree with the “learning a language because you like the sound of it is a self-defeating…”

    I started it because I liked how the lyrics sounded in songs and the combinations of the script. I still like it for its sound, even though i understand it better.

  10. Yes on everything (English in my case), but what do you mean at #3 “Learning a language because you like the way it sounds is a self-defeating goal”? I grew up worshiping English and everything about it was awesome including the sound.

  11. 1. I was intoxicated on my 21st and couldn’t remember a thing that took place in English, only Korean.

    2. I once dreamt in Korean with English subtitles.

    3. True, and you make me worry about learning Mongolian. That language just sounds so badass and I really want to make the same sounds!

    5. I swear in Korean on reflex, and still use one or two Japanese reflexive words.

    6. I’m still tempted to put my hand under my arm when giving or pouring something for someone older, and sometimes feel uncomfortable not doing it.

    8. Related, I was listening to a waiter go on in Korean about the restaurant’s service, but when he got to “muryo” I stopped understanding anything he said. Turns out “muryo” means “free” in both Korean AND Japanese, but I only knew the Japanese, and started actively listening for Japanese after he said it.

    9. When you listen to two people conversing in two foreign languages (from your standpoint) and understand everything as comfortably as you would in one language. Even trippier is when they’re speaking EACH OTHER’S language.

    10. When your foreign language becomes as natural, if not more natural, than your native language. Thing is though, this is only true for me if I’m slowing down my English for a non-native speaker. Korean doesn’t drag me down, but slow English does.

    11. When you’re speaking your native language and have to pause and think of what your next word is, only to realize that your native language doesn’t have it, but one of your foreign languages does.

  12. Ive yet to do most of those, but I started listening to japanese differently as soon as i learned kana. Oddly, it no longer sounds like a foreign language even though i still cant understand 99% of it.

    Some onomatopoeia do sound like their supposed to, like nyan. Meow is good, but nyan is perfect.

    8 is how young children learn, its a natural human ability. But still, no less baffling.

  13. I’ve definitely had all those moments before!

    I’ve also been told that I have sleep-talked in japanese after some intense study periods >_>; I’m probably fluent in my sleep and I’ll never know!

    • Hi Kiruchan,
      This made me lol a lot. maibe you should record yourself one days after studying 16h in a row. 😛

      As for the topic I also lived all those when learning English (my fist language being French), but I’m not quit there for japanese. Ganbaru!!!

  14. 8. When you ask a native speaker who also speaks your mother tongue, how to say something in your mother tongue because you forgot it, and he/she gives you quickly the right answer.

    This just happened to me today, and it was really a memorable moment 🙂
    We laughed a lot after my question 😀

  15. Just now I was reading a sentence in english, interspersed with Japanese, and I didn’t notice until I backtracked and recognized it. I understood it perfectly and didn’t even notice! 8D And then I thought, “Wait…that’s not the same language.” XD

  16. one moment is saying something in english but in your head you are thinking it in japanese

  17. These are all so great I am not sure which was the best one. 1 & 2 were both pretty exciting for me though. I remember having my first dream in Japanese and was impressed that I had learned that much Japanese.

  18. One day I was drawing a bath for my daughter, and when I went to test the water’s temperature, I instantly recoiled away from the water and shouted .
    It wasn’t until my wife asked for a translation that I fully realized what had happened–I had instinctivly used a non-native word without thinking.

  19. I learned Japanese when I lived there for 3 years as an Air Force brat-we lived off base to be near relatives. I remember the first time I went looking for an automatic rice cooker in the states and asked someone in K-mart. “where are the gohan cookers”.

    I dream in Japanese when I’m talking to a Japanese relative, but never to an American, or alien, or whatever else I happen to be dreaming about.

  20. Mm..most of mine are taken, but one of my favorites is when I started reading a magazine, and about 10 pages in I realized I had started from the back and was reading the pages from right to left. I believe it was a Nintendo Power. xD

    Also, when I started saying 「何?」/「何だ?」reflexively rather than “What?” Almost everyone I know knows what that means by now.

    A funny moment: I had just gotten back from Japan and was ordering a coffee from the airport’s Starbucks. I couldn’t understand for the life of me what the lady was saying because I was so used to the ones in Japan.. Apparently she was asking “What size?” but had to repeat it four times (with obvious annoyance)… I nearly answered it as 「トール」 before catching myself. And then started bowing repeatedly in apology. >_>;

  21. When you’re looking at someone’s tattoo, and you can clearly see that it’s 2 kanji, but you can’t quite figure out what the word is suppose to be, so you ask them. They tell you it’s “Love” and you say “Ooooh OK!”, but you’re thinking in your head “Oh boy… That definitely isn’t ‘love'” (They seperated the top part of the kanji from the bottom) lol

    • Ha ha, oh yeah, I love those tattoos! I saw a whole bunch in Cancun that you can choose from. Some where actually Ok but why the hell would you want to tattoo the word “Peace” to yourself?

  22. I don’t think learning a language ’cause you like the way it sounds is self-defeating. I’m fairly fluent in Spanish (mostly the written language, but I can understand the spoken language when it’s spoken clearly enough), and I actually like the way it sounds more than I did when I started learning it. I also like the sound of English, even though it’s my native language.

    Probably my most memorable moment — actually it’s happened a couple of times — is when I started thinking something in Spanish, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it in Spanish until I ran into a word I didn’t know how to say yet.

    – Kef

  23. Here’s one: you’re making out vocabulary words for a foreign language you’re trying to learn (e.g., Japanese), and on the flip side of one card you instinctively write a word from another completely unrelated foreign language you’ve studied previously (e.g., common Greek). Realizing what you’ve done, you look back at the meaning given in your source material and realize why you did it: the meaning stated in your native language is too awkward to use. We just don’t have a word like that in English, so the dictionary gives the same convoluted definition you used to have on the back of your old vocabulary card for the word in the other foreign language. So you go ahead and leave the Greek word on the back. Hey, why not?

  24. I have this one too :

    When you start recalling past events which happened in your home country (and thus home language) but in your target language !

    That was… pretty weird

  25. Great style and ideas like always! Great to see you’ve been updating the “grammar guide” site too recently (July, this year), Tae Kim ^_^
    I’m a great fan of the way you ordered the grammar items and the how you explain them in a natural Japanese point-of-view. It helped me really have a clear grammar-rules system in my head when it comes to Japanese. I love this language.
    I think I’ve reached about step 6. I promise I’ll think of some “milestones” too and come back soon with another comment ^_^
    Mihai (ミハイ)
    from Romania ^_^

  26. When you can’t listen to a song/drama, etc. and NOT help but understand it, even if you tried!

  27. Reading this post gives me hope but also makes me wonder if I’ll ever experience any of these moments. I’m struggling just to learn and retain hiragana. 🙁

  28. The moment where you just couldn’t find the “right” expression in English so you express it using Japanese…… without consulting a dictionary. I find myself doing that a lot more lately.

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