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For the week of  October 3 - 9, 2001

  News

Polyglot Iím not: learning a new language

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS


Now children are being introduced to other than their native languages at an earlier age than I am, and lots of speaking is encouraged. International travel is more common now for Americans, who were more provincial and isolated from the rest of the world when I was young. Thus, Americans are more broadminded about the need for fluency in one of the languages that is spoken beyond our boundaries.


I have the utmost respect for anyone who is bilingual, or, for that matter, anyone who can communicate, even haltingly, in another language. I sympathize with elderly immigrants who find it almost impossible to learn a new tongue, for I am struggling now with learning another language, and itís hard going.

Some of the challenge is genetic and some self-imposed. One of the blocks I have to overcome is my pride in speaking a high caliber of English, (friends refer to me as the grammar sergeant) thus my timidity in speaking something else. Educators acknowledge that the earlier a child learns a second or third language, the easier it is. When I went to school, we didnít study a language until the 10th grade. That late start plus the social milieu of her classroom must have made it hard for Mrs. Silva to impress her beautiful Spanish on us. Also, teachers then stressed rote learning; the only time we spoke Spanish out loud was after we memorized a few lines for homework.

Now children are being introduced to other than their native languages at an earlier age than I am, and lots of speaking is encouraged. International travel is more common now for Americans, who were more provincial and isolated from the rest of the world when I was young. Thus, Americans are more broadminded about the need for fluency in one of the languages that is spoken beyond our boundaries. I applaud our adoption of an idea held, necessarily, by Europeans for decades.

I have tried to learn languages and have faltered along the way. My two years of high school Spanish didnít stick: I felt like a dummy in my third year of the course taken in college. I eventually tried French, since I knew I would be required to read it as a component of my graduate studies in English. Once again, I found myself hating the memorization that was required before we ever tried to speak. On my travels, I found myself shutting up before I dared attempt to communicate in French. I did pull out all I knew when my two young daughters and I were hopelessly lost in Paris after a strike had caused our ferry from England to land in Zeebrugge, Belgium. We had spent the night driving around little towns along the way, worried that our concierge wouldnít let us in as the time sped by. Fortunately, the transvestite hookers who guided us when we stopped along the ChampsíElysee at 3 a.m. were kind and accurate and we arrived safely.

Iím sure many of us have hilarious tales of the misuse of the vocabulary of another tongue. One summer when I was a young teacher I traveled by myself to Greece and Spain and managed to get along without any clear disasters. It wasnít until I was on the plane heading home to the United States that I realized why one man who kept following me in Madrid had been so persistent. It probably had something to do with the fact that when I meant to say "Go away!" I kept shouting "Venga, venga!" which Iím sure most of you know means "Come, come!"

So 11 years ago, when I underwent a month of extensive language training for the Peace Corps in Thailand, I was full of trepidation. Not only am I poor at other languages, I thought, but now Iím older and have developed short-term memory loss. Sure enough, I was put in a group of slow learners, watching some of my fellow volunteers sail through acquiring their fourth or fifth language with ease. I cannot forget the day I floundered at the task of recreating an imaginary trip to the post office, conducted in a small circle of other students. I couldnít seem to get the piece of wood which represented the postman to get to the post office via the right and left turns we had labeled in Thai. I actually went to the bathroom and cried, feeling like a kindergarten dunce.

Although my Thai friends gently teased me when I made mistakes, I took the kidding in good spirits. And I did actually manage to get around Thailand speaking the language, although sounding like a 2-year old idiot. I could engage in simple conversations on buses in remote parts of Thailand. As long as I let my listeners know how much I loved the Thai peopleóand Thai foodówe could talk . So perhaps I wasnít as awful at the language as I thought, although I never did master reading Thai, as the Sanskrit alphabet only swam before me on pages or billboards.

Now I am tackling Italian. I wish to learn enough to at least attempt communication in the country I plan to visit next. I will be living in a renovated farmhouse in Umbria on the border of Tuscany for almost six months, beginning in October. Iíve dedicated myself to listening to tapes and writing down what I hear as I say it. This way I can use more senses: I learn better when I also see words on a page, then repeat them orally. I hope it works.

I will continue to write columns from my small room in the town called Villastrada, so Iíll let you know. In the meantime, arrivederci!


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.