Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Learning other languages

Is someone who speaks three languages is a trilingualist and someone who speaks two languages is a bilingualist, what do you call someone who speaks just one language? The answer, according to the old joke, is an American.

Jokes are usually  funny because they contain a grain of truth, and that is the case here. Most Americans, or at least most of the Americans I know, do speak just one language, English. Even if they studied another language in high school, that doesn't mean they can actually speak that language. I studied Latin in high school, which may give me a slight edge when I see Romance languages like Spanish or French, but doesn't help at all when I hear them spoken.

Language training in the United States tends to start too late, after the point when children can learn languages easily, and end too soon, before students can actually become comfortable with the second language.

Americans love to travel to other countries, but when they do they count on encountering people who speak good English. I enjoyed my visits to both the Netherlands and France a decade ago, but my fondest memories are of Amsterdam, not Paris. I'm sure that's because almost every Dutch person I met could speak good English, while relatively few French people could.

English has become virtually a universal language, taught in schools throughout the world. So maybe learning other languages isn't really that important. I've managed to do OK speaking just English. Still I wish I could converse with waiters and cab drivers in Paris or Montreal. I wish I knew what all those Spanish-speaking people I encounter in Florida are talking about. I wish I could travel to Germany or Japan and find my way around.

Schools already have too many government mandates. Still I'd like to see American schools, both public and private, encouraged to do a better job teaching languages. Such training shouldn't wait until high school. It should begin in the first grade, or better yet kindergarten, or even better yet, pre-school. Simply exposing young children to adults, or even other children, speaking another language on a daily basis would help teach that language. Children can learn languages with relative ease. If that training is re-enforced through the years they could one day become bilingual, or even trilingual, Americans.

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