Wie gehts? Comment vas-tu? Como estas?
My high school offers three foreign languages: German, French and Spanish. Both the German and the Spanish classes are given by native speakers; not so for the French as it is very difficult to find a native Parisian in our small town. As a rule, most students take 2 years of foreign language, not enough to learn to speak well, and certainly not enough to write flawlessly. The three teachers complain of the lack of grammatical knowledge in these teenagers. When you can’t differentiate a noun from an adjective, a present tense from a conditional, an action verb from a linking one, things tend to get complicated when entering college. And yet, our students’ exposure to European tongues may well awaken in them the desire not only to learn more, but also to visit these countries.
Long, long ago, I took 3 years of Latin in middle school, thus setting the foundation for my acquiring Italian, some German, Spanish, and last but no least, English. In every case I had a clear advantage over those classmates who had not studied Latin. Yes, it would be difficult to bring this ancient language back to life in K-12 schools. But at the very least, a decisive effort should be made to teach the basics of grammar and syntax.
As I was watching CNN the other night (patience, I am getting there), I noticed three glaring spelling mistakes in the headlines at the bottom of the screen. Obviously, their editors were not on the job or else they failed English 101 while in college. Correct spelling is tantamount to dressing correctly. A tear in the seat of your pants will certainly elicit unkind comments at the office; but so should clear mistakes when speaking and/or writing. We as a nation founded by English immigrants must protect our mother tongue from deteriorating; every language evolves, that is certain, but to accept barbarisms and/or vulgarities as every day speech is unacceptable. So is to accept glaring mistakes that make the person sound uneducated and reflect poorly on our culture.
An American friend born in this country, why can’t I say native American anymore, said to me when I suggested he learn another idiom: “Why should I? Everywhere I travel I can find somebody who speaks English.” True, absolutely true; but ask our returning soldiers how important it is for them to speak some Pashtun (Afghanistan) or Arabic (Iraq). It could very well save their lives and convince the natives that we are making an effort to understand them.
Speaking Italian in Italy will make your stay a completely different experience; you’ll be able to communicate with everybody, not just the cultivated ones who understand English. More important, it will allow you to understand another culture, its customs, its food, its history, its passions, its view of the world.
We have a long border with Mexico where I lived for 20 years; I stayed that long because I made it my priority to learn their language and marry one of their beautiful women. As I tell my students every day, you are blessed because you already speak two languages: 100 million Mexicans can now communicate with you in whatever capacity you visit them; another 100 million people speak the language of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador of Latin America. Opportunities are there to sell, to open a business, to trade, or to negotiate a treaty if you are a member of the American embassy.
How important is it to learn another language? Are you kidding? It’s the world at your feet, so hurry and buy a Rosetta Stone method, the best way to learn another language fast.