Franke: Americans are foreign-language illiterates

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Americans have a reputation, well deserved, of being language agnostics. Maybe that is the wrong characterization but I can’t think of a better term.

In our defense English has become the lingua franca of the world, most everyone’s first or second language. Note the irony in my choice of words, resorting to Italian to describe English. But then English is a borrower language, importing words from Latin, Norman French and German to construct our basic vocabulary and grammar. Recently one can sense more Spanish words in daily use. I’m sure there are others contributing too.

Maybe that is the problem, partially at least. Since our language has so many parents, it is no wonder American English gives the appearance of being randomly constructed by a grammar tornado. Do we even have pronunciation rules? Try teaching a first grader to read. I have served as a volunteer tutor at that level so I know how difficult it is for these youngsters. Eventually they figure out that the exceptions are the real rules. Take irregular verbs, please, to misquote Henny Youngman.

Still, there is no excuse for our deemphasizing foreign language classes in high schools and colleges. Learning a language can be tough. It is mostly memorization, another skill our schools have deemphasized. Why memorize anything when one can simply Google it on a cellphone? I find that attitude pedagogically irresponsible and ultimately destructive.

I confess that I avoided a foreign language in college, in part due to my having taken 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 still was able to learn one. Now it’s too late for me.

I like to listen to college lectures through the Great Courses series, especially on subjects I never studied formally. One on linguistics informed me that it is extremely difficult for someone over the age of 50 to learn a new language. I decided to field test that theory and unfortunately proved it true.

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

One would think that my previous competency in Spanish would have come back easily. Wrong. My feeble attempt to order lunch at a Madrid café did not turn out well. When I asked the waiter to speak more slowly, he interpreted it to mean provide service more slowly.

I thought German would be easy to pick up, having heard my grandparents’ generation speak it amongst themselves. Wrong again. For an English speaker to learn an inflected, gender-based language is not a simple task. I embarrassed myself in Wittenberg when I asked for another beer using the feminine indefinite article. The bartender was one of very few English speakers in the former East Germany and got a good laugh out of my asking for a “girly beer.”

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

Yet I am not discouraged. I may not be conversationally literate 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 as meanings change over the centuries.

So I love the study of languages even if I can’t learn them now that I am in my dotage. I find the hour profitably spent when researching the origin of English words even if I can’t remember the results of this research the next day. And I eagerly read books on language and grammar whenever one shows up on my local library’s new additions shelf.

One book I read recently was “The Word Hord: Daily Life in Old English” by Hanna Videen. Our Anglo-Saxon forebears’ Old English was much more Germanic than today’s modern English. Yet I was amazed at how much has been handed down over the centuries. A recent study found that 70 percent of our most commonly spoken words are from this Anglo-Saxon base.

Is studying a foreign language fun? No. Is it worthwhile? Definitely. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, will someone please convince our educational establishment of this inconvenient truth?

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

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