I can still vividly remember her face — her dark hair curling around her face, her hands gesturing widely as she told me a very dramatic story. I nodded and grinned. Then I remember her big eyes filling with tears. Wait, what? I wiped the idiot smile off my face and wracked my brain for the English translation of the word she kept repeating. Finally, after some interesting and animated charades, I realized that my high-school Spanish teacher had failed me miserably. He never taught me the word for miscarriage.
I’d been sitting with this woman in Chiclana, Spain, for half an hour, the whole time smiling and bobbing my head like a maniacal puppet, pretending I was following her. And the whole time she’d been telling me about losing her baby. (Don’t ask me how I ended up in Chiclana, talking to a woman I’d just met about dead babies. That’s a whole different story!) My point: I felt like a total tool. My real point: My Spanish was not as good as I thought it was and not remotely as good as I needed it to be.
That was my second visit to Spain (beautiful, beautiful country) and according to my teachers I was “fluent” but in reality all fluent meant was that I could reliably figure out which bathroom to go into when there weren’t pictures on the doors. (Hint: It’s the one all the other women are going into.)
My classroom Spanish failed me in myriad ways. I once ordered “cerveza” as the drink with a Happy Meal at McDonald’s not realizing it was beer. (I know what you’re thinking – why on earth was beer listed under the kids menu? But what you should really be asking is why was I eating at McDonald’s instead of a nice tapas bar.) I had to learn the hard way that a totally normal word in Spain Spanish is a curse word in Latin American Spanish. (Although it gave me a whole new perspective on the Pitbull song?) And of course I missed out on allllll the jokes.
My husband, on the other hand, really is fluent in Spanish. And so sometimes when we don’t want our kids to know what we’re talking about, we speak in Spanish. Which usually involves more interesting and animated charades… and a headache. Because over the years my Spanish abilities have decreased even farther than what they were that dismal day in Chiclana. I can still read it well but speaking it is a whole other story. My husband tries to coax me to speak with native speakers, rightly pointing out that that is the best way to get better at it but these days when people ask if I speak Spanish I just say no and save us all the trouble of having to listen to me slaughter their native tongue. (It occurs to me now as I write this that this might be more of an issue with my perfectionism. If I can’t do it perfectly then I won’t do it at all by golly!)
This drives me nuts. Learning a second language has always been really important to me and I feel like it’s something everyone ought to do. For many people in the world, it isn’t even considered a lesson but rather just life. Plus I’d like my kids to learn Spanish and if I can’t even manage a few words then how do I expect them to?
And then I listened to this Freakonomics podcast about whether learning a foreign language is really worth it. Their short answer was that from a monetary standpoint, no, it isn’t. Apparently the small increase in salary you get from being bilingual isn’t enough to compensate for all the “cost” of learning it. One of their experts even panned teaching kids a second language in school saying, “There are so many kids who remain barely literate, and numerate in their own language” and adding that making kids study something they won’t use later is “cruel” and a waste of time and resources. The show also pointed out that with over 1/3 of people on this planet being able to speak English to an adequate degree, it’s quickly becoming unnecessary to learn other languages.
Of course that all depends on what your definition of “worth it” is. From an economic standpoint (which is where Freakonomics always starts) then perhaps it isn’t. But for me learning another language isn’t about earning more money or doing business in another country. For me it’s mainly about communicating. I like being able to understand people and talk to them. And while it does seem like so many people are learning English, I would point out that on a macro level Spanish is the second most popular native tongue (Mandarin is the first) on the planet. And on a micro level, I encounter Spanish speakers daily.
Regardless of what language you pick to learn, however, it has benefits that go far beyond the language itself. Many studies have found that learning another tongue actually reshapes our brains. For kids, it improves their memory, executive function and is even correlated with better math skills. For the elderly, it can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And for everyone in between it helps keep our brains flexible and “younger”. There’s also this weird little bit of research that shows that we may make better decisions when done in a foreign language as it “provides greater cognitive and emotional distance”.
The problem with all that, of course, you only get the benefits as long as you use the language. And unless you speak it every day, you can lose fluency very very quickly.
For me, the benefits of learning a foreign language far outweigh the costs. Especially now that I found this cool app called DuoLingo. (Nope, they’re not sponsoring this post. I’m not getting paid to pimp them nor do I have any relation with the company at all. It’s just something I found on my own and love so I wanted to share it with you guys!) It’s FREE, super easy to use and I swear it’s teaching me better Spanish than all my previous book-learning. (You can also learn French, German, Portuguese and Italian.) Not only does it teach you vocabulary and conjugation and stuff but it has you speak and listen to the language as well and you have to pass those off before you can move up to the next level. I’ve tried several other paid Spanish-learning programs and I’d say this is as good as any of those, if not better!
I installed it on my tablet and phone so I can do a lesson while I’m waiting in the school pick-up line or waiting for the dentist or whatever. It’s really convenient, well done and fun. Oh and there are no ads! Plus, its emphasis on speaking whole phrases has really helped my confidence in speaking out loud. The computer grades your pronunciation so at least I have an idea if I’m sucking or not. So far I’ve only worked up to talking more with my husband but I’m hoping to branch out to other real, live people soon. I love it.
So what’s your take – do you speak a second language fluently? If so, how did you learn it? Anyone else have an embarrassing foreign language story to tell??