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How Do We Learn Languages? May 26, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Aaron Schlossberg’s anti-Spanish rant is darkly amusing in its naivety, shocking it is explicitness.  Would I have been subject to the same treatment if found speaking English in a restaurant in Spain?  I don’t think so.

My grandparents came from Bratislava, in what is today the Republic of Slovakia, but at the time was Austria-Hungary.  All four of them are listed on the Ellis Island rolls (to be fair, I have only found three of them, but both spellings and the past are vague at best).  And yes, apparently Andy Warhol was a second cousin or something (thanks, Karen); names were pronounced and spelled differently at different times.

My parents spoke some Slovak, but rather than pass on the language to their children, used it to hide what they were saying from the children.  Today I regret this.  In general, I wish I had had the opportunity to learn different languages growing up.

Many of my school classmates were children or grandchildren of immigrants, mostly from central, southern, and eastern Europe.  There was one classmate I remember who was a very good student, and spoke good English with a slight accent.  I learned that English was his second language, that only Ukrainian was spoken in his household.

I travel quite a bit today.  I took Spanish in high school (now 40 years ago) and am in Spain once or twice a year for several years now, and my understanding of Spanish is coming along nicely.  I know a few words of German, and gave my twelve words of Russian a workout in Kiev two weeks ago (and even learned a word or two of Ukrainian).

As Hiro Protagonist noted in the  wonderful grunge novel Snow Crash, America in the near future is good at only four things – music, movies, microcode, and fast pizza delivery.  But it is precisely those things (I will also add aviation) that make the English language known throughout the world.

So how do we learn other languages?  We learn through practice, pure and simple.  Years ago, my sister took a degree in French, never used it, and today cannot remember a single word.  I meet people in Europe who know three or four languages well, because they can travel two hundred miles and hear several different languages.  Switzerland has four national languages.

We don’t have an official language, English or otherwise.  Let’s keep it like that, and let’s hear and practice other languages in the United States.  It will make us better citizens.

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