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¿Dónde Está el Baño?

The train between concourses in Atlanta Hartsfield airport is full of the heat, sweat, and silence any traveler comes to expect.  There are three electric signs explaining the situation – one in English, one rolling between French, German, and Spanish, and the last one the more artful display of Arabic, Japanese, and Korean.  Whichever one made the most sense to any particular traveler was unclear as we all kept our language to ourselves.  Certainly, for many of them, English would have been enough – and not just because we were at the portal to Atlanta.  To many people around the world, the language of the new globalization is the youngest one of all.

There are many reasons English became the standard around the world, the most important being the great standard that the American Empire created. It also helps that our language has always been flexible about importing bits and pieces of other tongues that had the jene se quois missing in native phrases.  That’s where the story becomes remarkable, because since we the standard of the world we often see less reason to learn other languages. If we’re not on top of this, we can lose control of our own language. But what languages should we teach our kids to prepare them for the future?

All of them.

You never know what language is going to be important.  I picked up German from my family, never thinking it would be useful in conference calls where everyone speaks their native language (it’s easier to understand language than it is to form it).  As Brasil grows in importance, many Spanish speakers will find Portuguese will come in handy.  For all we can tell, the financial sector might want to take a crash course in Mandarin Chinese, while our military learns Arabic or Farsi.

Since we can’t say just what will matter most to any one person, the most important thing we can teach our kids is the beauty of languages and where our own tongue comes from.  I call it “Comparative Languages 101”.

My idea is to start out kids in about 7th grade, younger if it can be done, with a quick overview of how English is put together.  From there, a list of about 20 common phrases ranging from “Hello” to “Thank you” to “Where is the Bathroom?” can be introduced in German and French, the languages we took the most from.  A solid grounding in these three is not only good for Eurotravels, it’s good for understanding our own language.

From there, it should get more interesting.  I’d start with a quick survey of other Germanic languages, especially Dutch and Norwegian.  These two are so similar to ours  that I find I can read Dutch just by pretending it’s badly spelled  English and ignoring the many “aa” pairs.  Once again, a short and practical list of how to greet a native speaker or easily ask for the loo (because if you need to know, you need to know).

Taking off through the Romance languages like Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian leads easily to Romanian and Slavic languages, where the Cyrillic takes us easily to Greek.  A bit of history and a bit of culture should always accompany the magic list of practical phrases.  A flight through Turkic to Arabic and Hebrew leads well to Farsi and Sanskrit, unless they fit better close to the Europeans.  Then it can get wild with some Mandarin, Japanese, Korean and Malay.

At the end of the course, the students should be able to do more than ask for the bathroom all around the world (and thank the person who told them).  They can then pick one language they like to study in more depth, proudly knowing just where it fits in a grander scheme of things.

English may be the standard language of the world, but you don’t have to travel much to see that in the early daze of globalization not much is standard.  We should be prepared for anything – including how our own language is going to change as people from all over learn to form English words.  The world is willing to come to us, at least mostly.  How will we come to them?

9 thoughts on “¿Dónde Está el Baño?

  1. Dutch IS fun; if you speak German (I minored in it) and English, you can basically mush-mouth the two together and be understood in Dutch. Norwegian’s a little more complicated, although it is blessedly more free of gender modifications, which make it more like English.

    And after I took Latin in high school (itself a great entree to other languages), I was amazed that I could read Romania’s “Pravda” knockoff pretty easily.

    Languages are a wonderful way to subconsciously teach kids how to learn – but I think you gotta start way before 7th grade. For too many kids, the current school system has already beaten the desire to learn out of them by then.

  2. …Ambitious?

    I don’t think a tour of languages would benefit many in a practical way. I’ve enjoyed my studies in several languages, despite my lack of proficiency in much more than English (I can get by in German, and have maintained the equivalent of two or three months of study in two or three others).

    Grammar itself is a worthy topic to study. To study grammar there must be a language. The problem is language must be tied to meaning and useful. Latin and Greek were hated topics of schoolchildren for decades, not simply because they were compulsory, but because those tongues were not made relevant to their current lives.

    We’ve gone through numerous iterations of “necessary to succeed” languages — languages that became briefly popular to study. Big payoffs would come to whoever learned Japanese or Russian (remember Perestroika or Перестройка?) during the 80’s. Is it Chinese or Hindi today? About half a year ago when oil was still over $100/barrel I bet Arabic would have been on the list, maybe not so much now.

    I think learning a smidgeon of phrases without much culture and little or no grammar would be a disservice. If instead students were required to learn a language of their choice and achieve a high level of proficiency, that I would endorse.

  3. Mitch: Funny story about Latin. Actually, in Bavaria I found that if all I knew was that an English word came from a Latin root I could say, “Es ist auf Latin ____” and they would understand me. Latin in general seems really handy.

    Bruce: No, I certainly don’t mean for this to replace learning a language in depth. And you’re right that a good sense of how languages are structured really has to be the main goal, not just how to ask for the bathroom. Part of my reasoning is that I learned the structure of languages while trying to learn a language – German – and that seemed like two things at once. The idea is to separate those a bit. What if I change it from an emphasis on 20 key phrases to an emphasis on the bits and pieces that make up a language? 🙂

  4. I think the comparative languages is a great idea. I agree with Mitch that it needs to start earlier than 7th grade. My son’s elementary schools taught spelling and vocabulary off a basis of Latin and Greek roots which is fantastic for helping with understanding the English language. He was testing with college level vocabulary by the time he was 10 because he could see the roots within the words and figure out the meaning.
    I think you start with Latin right off the bat–Kindergarten. Once you get to middle school it would be a good time to have a class that does a quick survey of the different language families. Students can then pick one they find interesting and go in depth starting around 7th grade. Then by the time they get to their Sophomore year in high school the quick learners would be ready to start yet another language. Suddenly we end up looking at high school graduates who can use three or four languages instead of the current two if you’re lucky.
    Another benefit is as you learn a language you learn a certain amount about its culture, too. One of the problems with Americans is we can be too ethnocentric. We don’t understand why some other countries hate us largely because we just don’t understand them.

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