Professional Learning

Why We Should Learn Other Languages

November 25, 2009

May I now lead three boisterous cheers for Spanish, French, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Greek, Latin, Farsi, German, and Urdu as a second language. And any other of the scores of global languages you'd like to include.

When math and science are increasingly seen as crucial to our national well-being and future prosperity, the mental and emotional process of learning a language not one's own is still among the most powerful forces in education.

Speaking Tongues

I've been thinking about the wonderful effects of learning a language for a few reasons. First, I'm reading a very pleasurable book called La Bella Lingua, by an American writer named Dianne Hales, about her experience falling in love with Italian and then studying that beautiful language.

The book resonates with me, since I have been studying Italian for about a dozen years now, mostly through classes that have by now evolved into weekly two-hour conversations with a private tutor -- a fast talker from Turin who forces me to keep up with her onrushing molto veloce patter.

Truth be told, I'm not a distinguished language learner. My high school and college years were spent in a mighty struggle with the Spanish subjunctive, which never made much sense to me. I was a fidgety student with a notable lack of discipline, so little of Cervantes's noble tongue remains with me today.

The Fundamentals

I did manage to become at least semifluent in Greek while living in Greece for most of seven years. But that was auditory learning; I absorbed the language by osmosis, by hearing and speaking it every day, as much out of necessity as scholastic joy.

My reading was always quite slow and very imperfect, and complicated conversations with my multilingual Greek friends were usually conducted in English -- for their sakes! But years later, even with my Greek now much atrophied, I can intuit the roots of many English words that came from that language.

My commitment to Italian, however, which began when my son was attending the University of Padova and I went to visit him, has lasted. With the first of many annual trips my wife and I take to Italy, it seemed to make sense to learn enough Italian to shop and order meals at restaurants. But I found Italian as wonderful to speak as pasta is to eat, and began taking classes. Now I speak and read passably well, though I can never be far from an Italian dictionary.

Common Denominators

What I have rediscovered, many years after trying to come to terms with Greek, is that learning a new language has enriched my awareness of the beauty of English, and that expanding my Italian vocabulary has brought me into contact with unfairly neglected words in my mother tongue.

For instance, one of the Italian terms for newspaper is quotidiano. This translates directly to the English quotidian, a much livelier, unfairly neglected synonym for the prosaic daily. And hearing the opulent and operatic music of Italian has made me listen more carefully to the music of English, which even as a writer I tended to take for granted.

These pleasures and revelations would come to me, I'm sure, no matter what language I had decided to learn. And though I am now uno studente vecchio, an old student, and have to work harder at learning than I would have if, as a high school student, I'd understood the riches that were being offered.

Homegrown, native Americans are famously -- or infamously -- averse to foreign languages. Of course, we produce gifted linguists. My son has the gift, and speaks Italian and Spanish, and is now learning Farsi, and I have friends who paid attention as kids and still speak excellent French.

The Bigger Picture

As a result of immigration, we have many bilingual fellow citizens. But unlike, say, Swedes, we don't produce many native-born graduates who speak any other language fluently. This, I'm convinced, contributes to isolationism and xenophobia. (There's one of those Greek-rooted words.)

Learn a language, and you learn a people. Learn a people, and you learn about yourself.

I was lucky enough, in high school, to have inspirational history and English teachers. The former gave me a lifelong interest in history; the latter gave me a career as a writer. But I regret that my Spanish teachers never managed to ignite the same interest in me, although as an avid reader of Hemingway, I envisioned a life of foreign travel.

Certainly, those teachers can't be blamed for failing to penetrate my innate sloth. But I think what they didn't do -- something my history teachers did -- was highlight the romance of language, and show me the importance of learning another way of speaking and thinking. I was always a sucker for romance, and I'm sure that this approach would have worked.

I'm told that mathematics is a language, which I'm willing to believe even though I don't speak it. So it seems ironic that math is front and center in the No Child Left Behind Act, while foreign languages are left behind.

Admittedly, I am far from the front lines in the education battles, but I am pretty sure that language teachers today -- perhaps better traveled than those in my day -- are able to pass along the sense of adventure and global understanding the treasure trove of tongues offers.

I'd love to hear how you are teaching language these days, and how students are responding. Please share with us your experiences and insights.

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