14 November 2005

Gifted with Languages?

Johnna had a really good comment a few days ago about languages that I wanted to bring up again:

I think this myth about some unusual talent for language is one of the reasons so few Americans speak another language--almost everyone expects language learning to be a special gift he or she in particular does not have. That, and the challenge of finding someone to converse with. There is an unusual giftedness--rare individuals can learn a second language to native-speaker capability.

I completely agree. When I was studying Arabic, I was amazed at how many people commented that they could never learn a language like that. I always wanted to ask them if they had ever even tried. Is it possible that almost every American only has the ability to learn English, while many people around the world are conversant in several languages?

And why do we think near-native ability is the goal? It takes years for even gifted people to get to this point unless the second language was learned very early. I am far from fluent in Arabic (and I'm seriously out of practice) but if we lived in Cairo, I wouldn't be concerned about the language. There is a huge range in language ability and native ability is rarely necessary.

The truth is that learning a language takes a lot of work. If you've got a gift, great. Use it. You're still going to have to work; vocabulary won't magically appear in your brain. And if you're like the rest of us, study hard. I have experienced few things as satisfying has being able to converse with someone in a different language.

And to end, I'll quote Jane Austen like Johnna did:

My fingers do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.


  1. I think there's a four-fold problem here. One: we loathe studying hard. Really. Hard work in America, by white, English speakers, is really a rarity.

    Two, we don't start early enough with the languages, especially in public schools. In Germany, they learn English starting at age 6. In Canada, they learn French starting in Grade 2. Here, we leave it until Middle School at the earliest. If we could somehow (along with all the other things, right?) fit it into grade school, more people would be conversant in a foreign language.

    Three: What language to learn? For the rest of the world it's easy: learn English. For Canada, it's required that everyone learn French, due to the bilingual nature of the country. But here? Spanish would be an obvious choice, but what about Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants; require them to not only learn English, but Spanish as well??

    And four, why bother learning a foreign lanaguage when so much of the world speaks English?

  2. I think your fourth reason is very important. There really is little incentive to learn a foreign language even though many Americans know people who don't speak much English.

    But this idea that "everyone speaks English anyway" really bugs me. Sure, you'll find English speakers wherever you go. But you are limiting yourself. Like I said, most Americans come into contact with people who don't speak much English. If you travel, you're stuck with only talking to people who know some English. That probably means you won't be talking to older people, or to small children, or to poorer people, or to many women.

    What if more members of the Church spoke foreign languages? Would there be such a need for Spanish wards, etc? Sure, many do from their missions, but still, far less than half speak anything besides English. People always assume I served a mission when they know I speak a foreign language. There are few American LDS women who speak another language well enough to translate in Relief Society.

  3. Oh you wonderful women make me think.

    I honestly (fear of persecution here) have been an advocate for having an official language. I have often heard, "if you are going to live in America, you need to learn the language" and for the most part, I have agreed.

    But honestly, I have never really thought about it. Language is a HUGE issue for me. I have struggled with English my life long. I have terrible verbal articulation and pronunciation. I just today said, "I can spell what I want to say, I just don't know how to pronounce it." And spelling has been HUGE for me too. I am sure you have all noticed that. Sometimes I spell check, and often I am not even close enough for the spell check to "catch" it.

    It has been a really big stumbling block for me. I have tried to isolate why. I don't think I hear particularly well, and I think I have hurried through life so fast, I haven't really stopped to think about it.

    Until I started writing. NOW I wish I had paid more attention in English, so I don't look so incompetent. Vowel placement is particularly hard for me.

    But.. I must admit. Since I have started to "pay" attention. It has been easier. Over the course of the last year, I have improved A LOT.

    As I have traveled I have really HATED not knowing the native language. I have either had someone with me who did, OR I have found someone who speaks English prior to my travels to help me.

    I honestly have NEVER tried. After reading this carefully, and putting it to thought. I am sure with hard work I could conquer another language. For me, I KNOW it would be hard, and I am not sure I could learn to speak it, but I could learn to write, and read another language, I think.

    I agree. We start WAY too late. We expect too little educationally from our children, and we are not... driven to be understood. We have this arrogance... at least I have...

    What a wake up call.

    You must think me so vain.

    *laughing* I do.

    Thank you for this post.

    Amira, I think you are great.

  4. Having studied education, I can tell you we introduce language WAAAAAAY too late in the American school system. Age 6 is a prime age for a second language. I feel terribly embarassed to only speak English since I've been married to an Urdu speaker for 29 years and all my children speak Urdu and I've lived in Pakistan for a total of 8 years. I've always blamed my swiss cheese memory for it and sadly it's true. I learn language as fast as anyone else, but lose it even faster without daily drilling. Now I'm trying to decide if I should try to relearn Urdu or start with Arabic. I understand that any effort I make in any language will keep my shrinking brain alive.

    Lisa M: Don't worry about spelling errors. Communication is the main objective and here's a little secret I learned while studying Linguistics: Most people automaticlally read right over spelling errors because we glance at the consenants and estimate the word in our mind. VERY FEW people notice spelling errors at all. And hey, this is life, not 6th grade so don't worry about them. I'm also quite a poor speller and wish comment boxes had spell check, but they don't so who cares?! ;)

  5. I agree, Amira: I was just stating the issue, not necessarily agreeing with it. We should be less arrogant and more willing to reach out and embrace the rest of the world instead of expecting the world to embrace us. But, that takes either: 1) dedication on the part of the individual, such as yourself or 2)a massive political movement to introduce a language (any language, for once you learn one, the others are easier) into the public school system. With all that is happening in the schools right now, I'm not sure foriegn language will ever get on the agenda.

    Homeschooling is probably the answer... :)

  6. I know of family in SoCAL where, while at home, mom speaks only Italian, Dad speaks only Japanese, Grampa speaks only French and Grandma speaks only English. As a result the children growing up in this home have learned since birth all four languages and are doing quite well with them all, thank you very much. One other bonus: all adults in said home have subsequently "picked up" the other languages they previously did not know, over a few years of daily use.

    For s'mee, I have interest in learning other languages for more than one reason. Keeping up with the cultural growth in socal, clear communication in business dealings, hope for travel, and others.

    Like my gramma said "Learning (insert what you wish here) is just like sex and the piano, if you want to be good at it- it depends on your desire for the details, and practise for proficiency." A tad crude, but true nonetheless.

  7. Thanks, Lisa. I honestly think that just learning about new things, whether it's a foreign language or whatever is the more important thing, and that's something you obviously do.

    Melissa, of course I didn't think you agreed with that. You just happened to hit a sore spot with me. :) And I agree- I don't see language study at a young age in public school as even being possible anytime soon in the US. Parents have to do it themselves if they want it to happen. Whether they homeschool or not!

    Carol, I have to study daily to keep anything in my head too. I bet that Urdu would come back quickly though if you took it up again. But I am always partial to Arabic. :)

    S'mee, it's good to see you back!