Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Importance of Language

I always knew that English was a hard language, but I didn’t understand how hard until I started teaching English myself. Working with Sudanese refugees at the low intermediate level, I have a lot of work to do. In the first two lessons we discussed the past tense. That’s easy, right? I mean all you do is add “ed” to the end of everything. But wait. The word “live” already ends in e, so all you add is “d.” And “study” requires you to change “y” to “i” and add “ed.” And “stop” requires a doubled consonant because the second to last letter is a vowel, and the word ends in a letter other than “w” or “y.” And isn’t the word “cook” just like “stop,” so you spell it with two k’s? Did I mention irregular verbs?

Wow. All these rules, and we haven’t even moved beyond the past tense.

I’ve been thinking: how do I explain the word “did” or the past participle, or the fact that “ing” is used for gerunds and infinitives and some adjectives (but of course not all! How simple that would be!)

I have always loved learning languages. I took Spanish in high school and college and then picked up Arabic as well. I have a knack for grammar, which is why I love Arabic, with its flexible word order and complex rules for case markings. Learning foreign language has changed how I look at the ways in which people communicate with each other. I see language not through the lens of English, with its awkward grammar and countless exceptions, but through a linguistic perspective. Language is a structured mechanism that allows people to express themselves orally. Learning to handle language, not English, is what develops a good writer and a good student.

Why then do we in the United States not learn foreign languages from a very young age like the rest of the world? The vast majority of students who study foreign language never “use” it. But this doesn’t make it worthless. Language is a structure that must be mastered. Language is an analytical skill not unlike math because proper language is developed through an analysis of order and function.

One thing is certain: if students started learning foreign language at the elementary age, writing and grammar would be so much easier.

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