Friday, June 17, 2005

Making Foreign Languages More Accessible

Department of Wild Schemes

When the characters in Canterbury Tales went on a pilgrimage across England, stopping each day in a different town, it is likely that they had to learn a slightly different language. They probably conversed easily with the innkeepers and merchants, though less easily with the locals and the officials. At any rate, by the time anyone had traveled very far in the England of those days, they likely arrived at their destination speaking a language that would be unrecognizable in their starting location. They thus accomplished merely by traveling what we find so difficult to learn from books.

The same thing could happen in China today, except that no one would be travelling quite so slowly these days. In Europe, however, due to the phonetic nature of the writing methods, variants have coalesced towards the centers, leaving broad linguistic channels separating a few standards. There are still interesting subvarieties of French. This process of standardization is certainly not complete. There is a lot of word sharing and there are languages that could serve as bridges. In the Netherlands I noticed I couldn’t distinguish Dutch from English at a distance. I suspect that we make a mistake teaching German in American high schools. We should teach Dutch, which might be a lot easier for an English speaker to master. Then they could take German in college.

We had an au pair from Spain that spoke Catalan as her mother tongue. She also knew Spanish of course, and English sort of. She could also communicate with the French au pairs, even though she never studied French. She felt that Catalan was possibly closer to French than Spanish. Maybe we should consider teaching Catalan in high school rather than French or Spanish, since it seems to be a bridge language between the two.

The point I really want to make here is that we could build our own bridge languages. Using historical bridges or concentrating on shared words may be helpful. My vision for teaching is that we could start reading the works of, say, Alexander Dumas, translated to English with a gradual merging into modern French over several volumes bit by bit. You could start by changing away from English word order and then gradually introducing French phrases and vocabulary. The idea is to provide a flow of language in a comfortable medium with an almost imperceptible transition to the target language. This would, of course, be a massive translation effort. I don’t know whether it’s ever been tried, or even whether it could work, but I think the importance of teaching languages to Americans makes it worth the effort.

6/17/2005 10:46 PM

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