Saturday, February 24, 2007


No habla el idioma

Since I started teaching English in Korea, I’ve lost track of how many times students have asked me, “What is the best way to learn a foreign language?” At this point in my teaching career it has become my staple response to pause thoughtfully for a moment before saying “Study for a certain amount of time and then try living in that country for awhile.”

I say this because I have the suspicion that it might be true and because it is my job to serve as a source of motivation for my students, and I think these words are considerably more inspiring than the actual truth, which is: I have no idea how to learn a foreign language.

I certainly had my opportunities, however. By the time I entered high school in 1994 two semesters of a foreign language were required of those American high-schoolers who wanted to move on to their choice of a four-year institution of higher education where they could drink copiously and sleep in for four years while they’re parents paid the rent.

In eighth grade I was told that I would have the choice of studying Latin, French or Spanish when I arrived in high school. I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking at the time, but I probably knew that Latin was studied primarily by those in the fields of medicine, engineering and other labish professions which were as appealing to me as a weekend of waterboarding. Also, there really isn’t any part of the world where it is essential to know how to ask “Is this a traditional greeting in your country, or are you trying to steal my wallet?” in Latin.

French, on the other hand, is more widely spoken, but has the decided disadvantage of being spoken primarily by French people. Therefore, I chose Spanish as the language I would “learn.”

I am using quotation marks with “learn” because I, like most of the other males who were soon to be the torch carriers of their generation, spent most of the time in class using the English-Spanish dictionary to look up words/phrases that aren’t fit for polite conversation.

So, during two years of Spanish class, I learned how to count, learned the alphabet, learned about trivia from South American countries, and picked up the occasional phrase that I found useful at the time, such as “Esta clase carece espíritu práctico.” When those two years were over, I moved on to pursuits that I found more worthwhile, such as pushing my CD collection into triple digits and endeavoring toward my long-term goal of having a date with an actual girl.

Within a few years, I was a sophomore at Southern Adventist University seeking a bachelor of arts in journalism, when I discovered that two semesters of a foreign language were required at the intermediate level. I looked to my advisor for guidance, not only because he was a former television reporter who had a master’s degree in our field, but also because he had the cynicism and the addiction to caffeinated beverages that all good newsmen must possess.

As the lights of the office reflected in the blond hue of his teeth, he told me that he had taken two semesters of intermediate German. However, he didn’t advise me to do the same because, he said, it wouldn’t be useful in my future career. To its credit, the German language could make a midget with a helium addiction sound strapping even while saying “Meine Lieblingsblume ist das Stiefmütterchen**” but it’s not as though scores of Berliners are arriving by raft to take construction jobs in Tennessee.

So, I enrolled in a community college during the summer to take a beginner’s Spanish class to brush up on my skills. Soon, I remembered the alphabet, remembered how to count, and learned lots of new trivia about South American countries while picking up some more useful phrases, such as “Esta clase es inadecuada para aprender conversación verdadera.***” I got an A in the class, and prepared to take an intermediate course in the fall of my junior year.

At Southern Adventist University, my intermediate Spanish class was taught by a very serious-looking man from one of the more obscure South American countries. He could speak English quite well; he just wouldn’t allow us to do so. My high school education had taught me a few things, such as how to survive on a lunch with no actual nutrients, how to dress in a way that put me at odds with neither the stoners nor the jocks, and how to quickly change the subject whenever dating life was discussed among my peers. One thing I had not learned was good study habits; I just coasted by on what I learned in class.

By junior year of college, I had already learned that the coasting methodology would net me a C for some classes, but Spanish was different. If I came unprepared every day, not only would my grade be unimpressive, but I’d get embarrassed every time the serious-looking South American man called on me. Faced with a choice, I thought of great leaders in history such as Lincoln, or Alexander the Great and then, considering their example, I dropped the class and switched to a bachelor of science.

After a year-and-a-half of teaching Koreans, who sacrifice their youth in institutes after school, hoping to learn enough about English, Chinese characters and computer software programs to gain entry-level jobs, I often reflect upon how easily I gave up my chance to become bilingual.

Parents today shouldn’t let their high school and college-aged children make the same mistake. Learning a new language is a gateway to having new career choices and meeting new people. Also, there is a lot of fun trivia to be learned about South American countries.

I just can’t remember any of it right now.

*“This class lacks practicality.”
**”My favorite flower is the pansy.”
***“This class is inadequate for learning real conversation.”

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