I spoke Spanish when I was a very little kid. We spent time in Mexico where my dad was working and our babysitter was Mexican. My mom was horrified when she spoke to me, and I answered in Spanish. But… In sixth grade I started Spanish in school. It was really, really, really boring and, strangely, I mixed up Spanish and Italian. Yeah, that’s it. My babysitter in Denver when I was very little was our Italian next-door neighbor.
Unfortunately, all the way through school, the highest level of language offered was intermediate, so I’m a master of intermediate Spanish. But it’s OK. I learned way back then that there’s a difference between studying a language and learning it. Anyway, I speak Spanish happily if not perfectly. I miss having the opportunity here in the back-of-beyond.
Freshman year in college — with a dream of going to Morocco — I started French. My teacher was a harridan from Geneva. Really a fascist. Anyway, French with its completely illogical spelling (English is a lot less illogical) and it’s romance roots (Spanish’ cousin) made it a different kind of challenge. When we had our first dictation I wrote everything the teacher said — in Spanish. She was furious. She thought I’d done this on purpose to ridicule her, to ridicule French. I didn’t even know I’d done that! I just never went back and got an F. In grad school, I took French at night school and found it to be pretty easy and fun, except for pronunciation. French spelling adds gratuitous letters; French pronunciation leaves them out. Mon dieu!
I finally made friends with French through le cinéma.
My sophomore year in college, I began to study Homeric Greek. My professor had learned it in school — all the way through school, Jesuit school — and he had his book photocopied (a HUGE deal back in 1973) and my classmate and I read The Odyssey. Every night we had five lines to struggle with as homework, every morning at 8 am (my professor’s way of blackmailing me into better sleep habits) we appeared in his office with our translations. Then we read EVERYTHING we’d translated. Since Homeric Greek isn’t exactly a living language, we were not obliged to endless pronunciation practice. All we had to do was read. I loved it. And, because of it, I was able to join what Mr. Preston called, “A brotherhood across time.”
It was a THRILL to study the language that way and influenced me forever as a teacher of language (English as a Second Language) and language learner. I’m all “bring it on, give me the real stuff!” It works much better for me than does the endless repetition of grammar drills. I think the normal way of teaching language teaches people to hate studying languages. The willingness to make mistakes is important. Native speakers don’t wait until they speak perfectly before opening their mouths to communicate with others. Why should non-native speakers? Those mistakes can be great ice-breakers.
Then came China and for two years before I even got a job, I studied Chinese. That was the most FUN language to study because writing it makes sense and there are NO verb tenses. Learning to write was meditative and aesthetic, plus Chinese characters have a different kind of logic than our semi-phonetic alphabets.
About ten years ago I decided to study German because, you know, Goethe. I got Rossetta Stone (it’s good, by the way) and began studying German every night before going to bed. Little by little I was learning German, though it frustrated me in a way because the vocabulary was so easy. It’s English, essentially, if the student has a little imagination and language background.
When I finally did go to a German speaking country (Switzerland, Zürich) I was able to understand most of the things I heard in high German. So far there’s no Rossetta Stone for Schwitzer Deutsch but if there were, I’d buy it today. While I was there last, in 2016, I was having dinner with a Swiss friend and his German girlfriend. Between them, they usually speak (spoke? She might have learned Swiss German by now) high German. At one point, I joined the conversation without even realizing I was speaking German. They didn’t notice, either. It was strange and magical until I realized what I was doing. Then I got worried about making mistakes.
So now, to make meaningful use of time when I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on any creative work, I’ve gone back to studying Italian using Rossetta Stone. My problem is double letters. It’s a problem in English; it’s worse in Italian. I’m having a hard time getting past the writing tests. 😦
And why am I reading this, Martha?
So…I don’t know if anyone else has noticed how bizarre the news reporting in this country is. For a long time I’ve been aware of the absence of real international news. This is especially in my house where the only paper I get is the Monte Vista Journal which I usually throw out almost immediately. I read it, but I subscribe in case I need a clipping of myself. 🙂
Last night a friend sent me a link to a Swiss paper, the Tages-Anzeiger, which publishes a lot of international news, not just Swiss but in remote places all over the world. The reportage in Switzerland is different from that in the US. I would say it’s more honest, more complete, less politicized, more informative. The headline to this article was “In the night, come the coffins.” Yes, that’s pretty melodramatic, but this is real life. The lead photo shows a long line of army trucks ostensibly (I’m deeply skeptical, sorry) carrying coffins to the crematorium. The article was about the situation in Bergamo, Italy.
He sent me the paper to prove that the situation in Switzerland is dire. Like a lot of people, he had only read the headlines. As he made his argument I kind of tuned him out and kept reading. Then I corrected him. “It’s Italy. Not Switzerland. This article is about the deaths in Bergamo.” My friend is Swiss. His first language is German. His second is Italian. He was stunned and had to say those words that come so reluctantly from his mouth, “You’re right.” I was really proud of myself for having been able to correct him in his native language.
The point here (beyond bragging of my linguistic prowess which is really not that great. I’m a solid intermediate in many languages) is that the truth is out there.