In a word: Euphoria.
Let me expose a little embarrassing secret, one which I'd guess more than a few of us on this board share:
I get a thrill out of using another language like a little kid with a secret decoder ring.
Yes, I've toyed with learning languages for a few days or weeks in the past for normal (boring) 'good' reasons: Spanish because I was going to go on a trip, Japanese because I practice Karate, even Cantonese I started because my girlfriend (now wife) spoke Cantonese to her parents at our weekly dinners.
But what really got me past the 'toying around with a language' and into actually seriously learning a language? A few experiences that were pure exhilarating fun. As fun as any I've had when I rode motorcycles, or played video games or guitar or even when I went to the national competition for my karate style and took home a large trophy and couple of over-sized medals. (Actually, that one hurt a little.)
What am I talking about? Here are a few:
I remember a moment when I was first learning to read in Chinese. I was reading the "Beginning Chinese Reader" by John DeFrancis.
Each chapter teaches you the meaning of 10 characters and then it follows with a short essay using only the characters you've learned so far from the book. Of course, early on the 'essay' is more of a list of silly sentences as they are quite limited. But there was a moment when I was a few chapters into the book that I had one of those moments. I looked at the open book in front of me and the two pages facing me were completely filled with (really oversized
) traditional Chinese characters. And I understood ALL of it. It felt like I was staring at the matrix and I GOT it. It was a huge rush.
I had several of these moments when I was in Bologna, Italy after spending several months learning Italian.
One of the first was when I made a phone call to a restaurant to make a reservation. It was early in the day, an older gentleman answered and made it clear that the full staff wasn't there (i.e. the one waiter who speaks English was not around.) I apologized for my terrible Italian, as is my self deprecating way, and we continued on in Italian for several minutes. We had a semi-complex conversation about availability on different days, when they closed, etc. Not a word of English was spoken. After making the reservation and hanging up, I had an exhilarating realization that I just completed a conversation with someone that did not speak English. A conversation that would likely not have been possible a year before. I felt like superman.
At another restaurant later in the trip, I was ordering for my wife and I in Italian, and as it wasn't too busy, I then explained to our jolly chatty waiter that we had visited Bologna last year and that we specifically returned to this restaurant as we liked it so much on the previous trip. He then preceded to treat us like family (to be fair, the service was always like that) and poured me WAY too many free shots of limoncello. Sadly my wife doesn't drink, so I had to manage them all by myself.
As I looked around the room with the warm glow of lemon liquor clouding my brain, I noticed that maybe 3/4 of the guests were locals and 1/4 were tourists. Most of the tourists were trying to puzzle out words on the menu and were not even attempting a simple "buonasera". I thought to myself: this opportunity to speak Italian is one I would never want to miss. We visited this same restaurant at least three or four times during our three week trip (my wife and I LOVE their steak and it was truffle season to boot.)
On our second to last day, I called a car service to pick us up the next day for the trip to the airport. Our AirBnB was right in the center of downtown and many of the streets are pedestrian only. I had a pretty complex conversation about timing, pick up location, closed streets, describing ourselves so the driver could find us, the airport, etc. all in Italian and it was all pretty fluid. It was awesome.
Sadly, I've let my Italian rust for a few years now. But I'll definitely pick it up again later.
In Cantonese, I have plenty of bad days, but I've had so many amazing moments. Yes, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, I DO think it is fun that every time I say the most basic thing in Cantonese some native will be genuinely shocked. (Although sometimes this gets old. 如果你知道幾多時間我用學廣東話，你就唔話我好犀利呀。-- If you knew how much time I used learning Cantonese, you wouldn't say I'm so amazing. ) I also like that I can share some cultural reference to a Cantonese TV show or something similar and see that connection in someone's eyes.
This is getting long so I'll hold off on a big list of Cantonese moments for now.
So in the end, if I am to be 100% honest about why I learn other languages, this is it.
I'm a kid with a secret decoder ring, and I get a kick out of knowing the 'secret'
Yes, this is a bit silly and self-indulgent... but aren't all hobbies?
What are your fun moments, those ones that give you that thrill?