This is my first time studying a foreign language. In high school and college, I took the easy route and "studied" Filipino as my foreign language. These classes were certainly valuable and not a complete waste of time--though I understand Tagalog almost as well as I understand English, it was helpful to study it closely to expand my vocabulary and get more comfortable with verb tenses.
Now that I'm studying a new language, I have a new appreciation for language and our ability to conceive and express incredibly specific ideas, needs, and desires. When I hear English or Tagalog, I don't think about syntax, sounds, letters, or syllables. My mind gobbles up strings and floods of words without even realizing it and starts processing the meaning behind these words straight away. Text is printed all around us on road signs, on book covers on the shelf, and on brand names and ingredients on food packages, and our brain just takes it all in without realizing that we are combining and making sense of symbols, words, and phrases.
At least, that's how it was for me until now. Now I have to actively decode strokes on a page and syllables spoken in seemingly indistinguishable combinations. Words and sounds are only slowly, slowly, slowly becoming linked directly to their meanings in my head rather than taking the long and tedious detour to its English translation before finally making any sense to me.
I often accidentally speak English to non-English speakers and use culture-specific pejoratives ("Oh! I see, I see, I see..." "Really?!" "Hmmm.. Okay." "Uhhhhh...." "Yeah!"). These sounds and phrases and their meanings are not inherent--they're learned. And yet they come as naturally out of me as my hair grows out of my head.
It's interesting landing in the middle of a largely homogenous country and not speaking the language. My vocabulary consists of only that which I need at the store, at work, on my commute, and so on. My realm of understanding is very specific. I easily forget words from my studies that I don't use every day (like hippopotamus, car accident, and fire), but other phrases in Japanese such as "I hope to work well with you in the future", "Please write your name on your paper", "Please look up, please listen", and "Order please (at the restaurant)" or "¥5000 bus card please" tumble out of my mouth without my having to give it a second thought.. Almost to the point where after the fact, I'm not sure if I spoke in Japanese or English. I guess this is how practical language acquisition feels.
Anyway. Language and human need/desire to express ourselves and connect with one another is fascinating.