December 30, 2012

My Tour of Languages

I've read that the optimum time to learn a new language is somewhere between birth and age 7. Does that mean it's way too late for me? I am fascinated by people who can speak more than one language. Being bilingual (or multilingual) seems like it would be a useful personal and professional skill. So I've been thinking about where I went wrong.

How is it that I was born and raised in south Florida where there's a big Cuban population and also spent the last 13-years in Texas and never had a legitimate opportunity to learn Spanish? Step back in time with me as I revisit my (educational) youth and see where I went astray.

Back in Florida I went to the same school from kindergarten through ninth grade. For some reason at this school there seemed to be emphasis on French. As early as fourth grade I remember having time each day, or maybe a few times a week, where Madame Ketchens would walk into the classroom. We'd all stand up and say, "Bonjour Madame."  She'd reply, "Bonjour, mes enfants. comment allez-vous?" That's about all that stuck with me.

Ralph Furley or Madame Karella?
There was a different French teacher during the middle school years, Madame Karella (guessing at the spelling). Kids can be cruel, so behind her back Madame Karella was jokingly known as "My D*** Gorilla." Anyway, the only other interesting thing I remember about French class in middle school was that Madame Karella used to dress like Mr. Furley on Three's Company. But she was a lot less funny.  

Finally, in seventh grade there was a choice. I think French was over at that point, and students had to pick between Spanish and Latin. This was a major turning point in my language development. Why oh why didn't I take Spanish? If you're wondering how popular Latin was in seventh grade, get this: There were only two of us who decided to take Latin class. And my classmate was one of those brainy A-plus students. Ugh!

I have to give old (and boy was he old!) Mr. Skinner, the Latin teacher, some credit for his creativity. He made us learn many goofy sayings that helped us grasp the basic concepts. For example, the cases in Latin are nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and ablative. To help memorize that, he taught us to remember: "No gent dates a cab lady." Get it?

My middle school Latin experience definitely did not prepare me well for high school Latin. The folksy style of Mr. Skinner was amusing, but I felt way behind once I got to high school. I barely scraped by in Latin, and I haven't used it since. Much like in Rome, Latin is a dead language for me. Although it would be fascinating to attend a Latin Mass one day. I think there's one in the Austin Diocese somewhere.

College was another missed opportunity to learn a language. Back then at my school, it was somehow permissible to get a degree in mass communications without taking language classes. So did I take a language class anyway just for the personal development and experience, or did I take the easy way out and skip lanaugage classes altogether. Gee, what do you think?

So high school was the last of my training in a foreign language until the early 2000s when I worked for a law enforcement agency. I attended a one-week "Spanish for civilians" class at the police academy. I loved it and wish I could have continued learning. But I never had much opportunity to practice, so those skills mostly slipped away.

The only other language I've dabbled in is sign language. Nothing hard core, just some basic words. That was really helpful with our first kid when she was a baby. Boy were we amazed when she "said" her first sentence in sign language before she knew how to talk! That's a whole other blog topic for the future.

I hope my daughters have better opportunities to learn a second language than I did. I wish I still could. Así que es demasiado tarde para aprender español?

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