A Lust for Languages: A Q&A with Emily Thongsavanh


A Lust for Languages: A Q&A with Emily Thongsavanh

March 20, 2019

A photo of Emily Thongsavanh playing a koto, a traditional 13-string Japanese instrument for a Koto Club performance at International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan

Majors: Japanese and Spanish
Class of 2020

By Ana Mitchell

What made you interested in languages? Why did you pick a combination of Japanese and Spanish?

Although I am half-Chinese, half-American, my father’s side of the family speaks Lao, so as I was growing up, I also spoke it. Unfortunately, after starting school, I began to lose my ability to speak it and now I just barely scrape by understanding a few phrases and words. As I got older, I found myself desperately wanting to be able to speak Lao again, and it opened my eyes to the other languages and possibilities out there. I think it’s a beautiful thing to be able to express yourself in other tongues, and to be able to communicate with so many more people by using other languages. I’m able to learn different ways of thinking, cultural customs, and the values that are most important to certain groups of people. I chose Spanish because it was the language I began to involuntarily learn in middle school, but I fell in love with the rhythm and cadence of the language, as well as the various cultures. Moving into college, I chose Japanese because Japanese culture was fascinating to me, and the sound of the language itself is something so unique and beautiful to listen to. The combination may appear quite unique to some because the cultural habits can be so wildly varying between the two, but if one focuses on the sound of the languages, they are actually quite similar.

How long are you studying in Tokyo?  What are some highlight experiences you have had while you are there? 

I am currently studying in Tokyo and, in total, will be here for roughly 10 months, or a full academic school year. One of my favorite parts about studying here is the opportunity to travel. There are so many places that I always dreamed about visiting and seeing in person, and it has been incredible to see, for example, the 平等院 (Byōdōin) in Uji and the 大仏 (Daibutsu) in Kamakura with my own eyes. The food, of course, is a major highlight as well, and something that I will definitely miss when I return to the U.S. The language program here is intense, but I think it’s to be expected. I feel that it has pushed me beyond my limits and it’s great to feel like I’m improving. The koto, a 13-string zither, is a Japanese traditional instrument, and as an avid music-lover, I joined the university’s club devoted to the koto. It has been so fun practicing and performing with the other club members, and an experience that has allowed me to express myself without words.

How has applying Japanese in a native-speaking environment been like for you? Any challenges or rewarding moments?

First arriving in Tokyo, I ran into many challenges with not being able to fully comprehend questions I was asked in common places like grocery stores, the city hall, the airport, etc. It was frustrating, but also was an opportunity for me to grow and expand my abilities of listening and responding in the target language. I still feel proud of myself when I’m able to keep up with casual conversations that go on in my dormitory, or when I’m able to read street signs without referring to my kanji dictionary.

What do you plan or hope to do after Ohio State?

For the longest time, I thought I wanted to be a translator or interpreter of some language, and while I still think that would be an amazing profession to have, I think that’s more of an in-the-future goal. I’m still uncertain about what I want to do after graduating, but I know for sure that I’d like to go to graduate school. And of course, I would like to continue learning even more languages, starting with relearning my father’s native tongue!