Let’s not be linguistic agnostics


Americans have a well-deserved reputation for being language agnostics.

Maybe that’s the wrong characterization, but I can’t think of a better term.

In our defense, English has become the lingua franca of the world, the first or second language of almost everyone. Note the irony in my choice of words, resorting to Italian to describe English. But then English is a borrowing language, importing words from Latin, Norman French and German to build our basic vocabulary and grammar. Recently, more Spanish words can be felt in everyday use. I’m sure others are contributing too.

That may be the problem, at least in part. Given that our language has so many parents, it’s no wonder that American English feels like it’s been randomly constructed by a grammatical tornado.

Do we even have pronunciation rules? Try teaching a first grader to read. I have been a volunteer tutor at this level, so I know how difficult it is for these young people. Eventually, they discover that the exceptions are the real rules. Take irregular verbs, please, to misquote Henny Youngman.

Yet there is no excuse for us to place less emphasis on foreign language courses in high schools and colleges. Learning a language can be difficult. It’s mostly about memorization, another skill that our schools have neglected. Why memorize anything when you can just look it up on a cell phone? I find this attitude pedagogically irresponsible and ultimately destructive.

I confess that I avoided a foreign language in college, partly because I took three years of Spanish in high school. A successful placement test was my friend back then, but now I’m not so sure. I could have taken another language at a time when I was still able to learn one. Now it’s too late for me.

I enjoy listening to lectures through the Great Courses series, especially on topics I’ve never studied formally. One on linguistics informed me that it is extremely difficult for someone over 50 to learn a new language. I decided to test this theory in the field and unfortunately proved it.

Since my retirement nine years ago, I have tried to learn or relearn the following languages: Spanish, German, Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Things didn’t quite turn out the way I had hoped.

You would have thought that my previous skill in Spanish would have come back easily. Bad. My feeble attempt to order lunch at a Madrid cafe didn’t go well. When I asked the waiter to speak slower he interpreted that to mean providing service slower.

I thought German would be easy to learn, having heard my grandparents’ generation speak it amongst themselves. Still false. For an English speaker, learning a gender-inflected and gender-based language is no simple task. I embarrassed myself in Wittenberg when I asked for another beer using the feminine indefinite article. The bartender was one of the few English speakers in the former East Germany and had a good laugh at my request for a “girly beer”.

I tried several times to learn Latin using Wheelock’s study guide, to no avail. I gave up Hebrew when I got to its equivalent of verb conjugations, and it only has seven. Greek is my current frustration as I audit a course on the Gospel of John at Concordia Theological Seminary here in Fort Wayne. I am writing this as I have just left class after failing my first test, which was based primarily on Greek vocabulary. I’m pretty sure I have at least a few good questions…I hope.

Yet I am not discouraged. I may not be fluent in conversation in these languages, but I have developed a simple vocabulary that helps me appreciate the derivation of many everyday English words. I find word studies fascinating, especially since the meanings change over the centuries.

So I love studying languages ​​even though I can’t learn them now that I’m in my age. I find it fruitful to spend an hour researching the origin of English words even if I don’t remember the results of that research the next day. And I eagerly read books on language and grammar whenever one pops up on my local library’s new additions shelf.

A book I read recently was “The Word Hord: Daily Life in Old English” by Hana Videen. The Old English of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors was much more Germanic than modern English today. Yet I was amazed at how much has been passed down over the centuries. A recent study revealed that 70% of our most commonly spoken words come from this Anglo-Saxon base.

Is studying a foreign language fun? No. Is it worth it ? Absolutely. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, could someone convince our educational institution of this inconvenient truth?

Indiana Policy Review associate researcher and book reviewer Mark Franke is formerly associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send feedback to [email protected]


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