Saturday, March 14, 2009

Use It Or Lose It

The wife and I just saw I've Loved You So Long a French film starring Kristin Scott Thomas and written and directed by Phillippe Claudel. Pretty good film, fine performances, but that's not why I'm writing this post.

I took four years of French, and at various times in my life since I studied the language formally in school, I've tried to relearn it, mostly to no avail. The film was subtitled, and I managed to catch a few words here and there during the movie. But when I tried to watch a scene without referring to the subtitles, hoping that body language and the context of the story itself would aid me, I was utterly lost.

Why do we Americans struggle with foreign languages so much? The old stand-by answer is that we don't study languages aside from English usually until high school, unlike our European counterparts.

I managed to take four years of Latin, four years of French, and two years of Greek (ancient Greek) in high school, and most of it's gone. Sure, I remember things like "amo, amas, amat." I'm able to read the Greek alphabet still. And French primer texts are comprehensible. But aside from that, it's all gone. And this coming from a guy that won an award in high school for how well he did in Greek (yeah, I was a nerd).

To think high school was only twelve years ago.

In my two minutes of Internet research, I came across this article, which explains why it's so difficult for anyone aged 18 and older to learn a new language.

So why do we Yanks wait so long to learn foreign languages?


Phil Stiefel said...

I feel your pain and it even cost me a job post. I took 3 years of latin (because at Devon Prep we learned faster than the Joes preppies), three years of German and then 2 more semesters of Advanced German in college. I went to work on crusie ships and the only way you get to work the Mediteranian is by having at least two languages one being English. Well I thought I spoke it well enough till I got there and was forced after 3 years of not studying it to use it and failed miserably. After 6 or 7 weeks it was so bad I was transferred back to a ship in the Caribbean.

seanag said...

Here's my theory on American acquisition of secondary languages. For what it's worth. I think your title sums it up rather nicely. The fact is, that though we do learn many languages here, we really are not called to use them very often--i.e., as if it really mattered.

An example: I studied Spanish to one degree or another since sixth grade. Can I speak it with any fluency--no. I go to the laundromat nearby and one of the great things, for better or for worse, is that most of the other people there are Spanish speakers so it is very easy for me to turn that into white noise so that I can read while I'm there. And yet I find that at least a little condescending on my part, because I know that if I was in a Spanish speaking country, I would be straining as hard as I could to understand what was being said.

I have studied a whole host of languages--in addition to Spanish, I did a year of Ancient Greek in college, took a semester of German, took several semesters of sign language, and have at various times done some self-study in Latin, Chinese and French. I've been told I have a gift for languages, and I do believe that, if only because I have been around a lot of people who I can tell it is a great deal harder for to either hear, or pick up the structure or logic of. But where does all that get me? Nowhere. I cannot speak any language but English fluently to this day.

I'm not posting this as an exercize in self-catigation, although I do admit that it shows a certain pattern of initial excitement and later laziness that isn't exactly flattering. But I think it's really to say that the stakes for American speakers in other languages is just not that high. There is no real reason for us to become fluent when the rest of the world seems to be willing to accomodate itself to English as a quasi-universal language. It's not that you can speak to everyone--it's that you can 'get by' in most places.

Brian O'Rourke said...


Oh no, we were only required to take 3 years of Latin at the Prep. You see, I was one of the uber-nerds who willingly took a fourth year. So go stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

"I was transferred back to a ship in the Caribbean"

Must have been terrible to have been transferred back to the Caribbean.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Seana -

I think you're right. Perhaps necessity is not just the mother of invention, it is also the mother of learning languages. Poor metaphor, I know, but I hope you'll give me a little leeway on this Sunday morning ;)

Rita Vetere said...

Hi, Brian--
Your title says it well. Living in Canada, I was required to take French starting in middle school. Despite that, I'm not able to carry on a coherent conversation in French and, like you, would be hard-pressed to figure out what's going on in a French film without the subtitles. Why? Because there's rarely an opportunity or the necessity to speak French outside of Quebec. On the other hand, my parents spoke Italian in our home when I was growing up, and my family lived in Italy for a while when I was younger. As a result, I'm fairly fluent in Italian to the extent that I can carry on a conversation or read an article. As with all the other stuff we learned in school, if it's not put into practice, it's soon forgotten.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Hey Rita,

How long did you live in Italy? And whereabouts?

I went once in high school for two weeks and loved every minute of it.

And look at you, being all bilingual ;) I struggle with just being unilingual.

Rita Vetere said...

Spent only a year living in Italy with my family, but you'd be amazed at what an eleven-year-old mind can absorb as far as picking up the language. We spent time in Spoleto in the Province of Umbria while there, where my dad hailed from (next door to Tuscany). I've travelled back to Italy many times to explore the country, and still haven't seen it all. Spoleto remains one of my favorite spots (the place dates back to the etruscans), but of all the Italian cities I've visited, it was Venice that stole my heart--just a jewel of a city.

Where in Italy did you travel while in high school?


Phil Stiefel said...

Ok so you were an ubernerd I understand now. But on the going back to the Caribbean, after spending over a year there I wanted to see more of the world. Being in Italy, France, Greece, Croatia, etc was way more fun for me. Naples still remains one of my top five places I visited. Between the great food (pizza), and the Ruins of Pompeii (the best tour I ever took) being ever so close it makes for an excellent place to visit.

Brian O'Rourke said...


In high school, we went to Rome, Capri, and Sorrento and took day trips to several places, including Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Cuma.

It was a great trip, but a bit too much focused on the ruins and not enough time spent in the cafes, bars, etc. After the 10th straight six-hour day of looking at centuries old buildings, they do all start to run together, no matter how cool they are. We were taking a class in archaeology, but still...

In Rome, we stayed a block away from the Vatican. It was a great trip.


I loved Pompeii too. What a place. And I'll never forget all the stray dogs running around the place. Wherever we went, there were strays.

Nathanael Green said...

Hey, Brian,

I think another big hindrance for Americans learning foreign languages is proximity.

In Europe, a different culture, its music, food and language is rarely more than a 4-hour train ride away. You're not just studying a French primer in school, but you can go use it on a long weekend, see French movies, have access to French rock n' roll ... it's all those little touch points of a language that help you learn it much better than studying the subjunctive in a textbook.

So sure, use it or lose it, but using it more frequently even in the learning stages would certainly help solidify what you've learned.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Excellent point. I wonder when we'll reach the tipping point in the US, where everyone knows and speaks Spanish too.