Thursday October 4, 2012

So I'm taking Spanish again.

I enrolled in a community college Spanish class on the first day of classes.

It was something of a splitsecond decision, such that I had to sprint from the registrar's office to my car in order to make work on time, but I feel good about it.

My reasoning is several fold.

Most important, I've always wanted to speak another language. I have studied a total of five over the years, not counting fictional languages, but never pursued any individual tongue enough to maintain fluency.

Second, I think speaking another language makes you a better person; not just in the sense that it's a résumé builder, but also it instills a degree of humility to not expect other cultures to translate themselves for you.

Lastly, I've always just enjoyed being in school.

Maybe it's the way it structures the year or maybe it's because it's like a job which is challenging enough to feel important, but if I fail at it I won't miss rent.

The great thing about Spanish is that even if you think acknowledging the existence of other cultures is unpatriotic, you already speak approximately 20 percent of the language. Even if you barely speak English you already know a considerable amount of Spanish.

You can probably count most of the way to 10, say hello and goodbye, please and thank you, my house is your house, where is the library, and probably at least one profanity.

I took a year of Spanish in 9th grade, but opted to pursue Latin instead. True, Latin is significantly less utilized these days than Spanish, but in high school the prospective realworld benefits of a class matter less than the number of your friends taking it and the chance to enter a siege-engine competition against other schools.

Latin also had the draw of being the only language class where the textbooks had a body count. My current text book features ethnically diverse Spanish students, but I doubt very many of them will be savaged by crocodiles in the Nile, poisoned through the machinations of an ambitious provincial governor, ordered to commit suicide by the emperor, or buried alive under tons of volcanic ash.

In total, I have taken six years of Latin, one of Spanish, one of ancient Greek, and a semester each of French and Italian.

This is both a benefit and detriment to resuming Spanish. I've had enough experience with the mechanics of language that I can accept the fact that nouns have genders without it seriously hurting my brain.

I don't know why towns are male while cities are female, but I can accept it for the sake of argument and move on.

Conversely though, the slight, but significant differences in pronunciation mean that I'll find myself combining the Latin "V" (sounds like a "w"), the Spanish "LL" (sounds like a "Y") and the French "EU" (sounds like being punched in the solar plexus) in a single word.

In all these classes, I've noticed an interesting quirk about language education.

When we teach an infant to speak, we start with a handful of nouns and then slowly work into basic verbs, adjectives when you have time and lastly grammar.The assumption is that a.) the child will have an easier time learning words if they can be associated with physical objects; and b.) the child will be able to scream what it wants from the toy store at the top of its lungs.

Between nouns and hand gestures you have basic communication. Verbs, adjectives, conjugations and prepositions are largely unnecessary. If someone walks up to you and says "Bathroom?" you know what he's asking and can help him out.

However, all the modern languages I have studied, regardless of school, teacher or grade level, begin with idle cocktail party conversation.

"My name is blank, I am so many years old, I am from such and such, I like the following things." It doesn't seem especially useful, but then again I suppose that is the sort of information EMTs typically ask for. Study of dead languages is closer to the infant style. Since you'll never have to communicate in Latin unless you know the pope, there's no need for conversational terms. You can start on Doctor Seuss-level sentences telling you that Caecillius is the father and work your way up to actual classical works, pausing for Caecillius and his family to die horribly in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius at the end of the first textbook.

Write to Sean McHugh at readers@berkshireeagle.com.