I took four years of El Espanol en la….I mean, in high school, and then a year and a half in college. I got to use the language in a real world situation this weekend when I scrawled a “Felices Cumpleanos” on a birthday card for a friend whose party was at a Mexican restaurant. It’s a good thing that the party wasn’t held in Mexico proper; “Felices Cumpleanos” is about the extent of the extant vocabulary within my Spanish repertoire. But although the Spanish vocabulary and much of the advance conjugation and syntax have passed into the memory cells waiting to be recycled for Pink lyrics, I still retain some of what I picked up in Spanish classes. No, I met the lovely and talented Heather elsewhere. I meant I learned something in Spanish class.
Of course, early in my educational career I knew I was an English Nerd (Geek would have paid better). After all, I graduated from high school with ten credits of English, the equivalent of ten years of English classes, and I accumulated almost enough English credits in college to render me ineligible for an English degree. Although the typical high school grammar-indoctrination courses were geared to beat the rules of English grammar and syntax into my head, I didn’t really grok the point until I started fumbling phonics in another language.
Trying to speak another language helped to abstract the principles of written, and to a lesser extent oral, communication. For example, take the simple question “Could you run to the store?” Although common enough in the common vernacular, the content of this simple sentence relies upon a number of peculiarites of the idiom. To whit:
- “Could” represents the conditional tense, which means that a condition must be satisfied for the statement, much like in computer programming. I could, if that damn pit bull hadn’t gnawed my leg of at the shin–bad Otis!
- “run” is the English equivalent of “go” and can stand in for run, walk, drive, or whatever means of locomotion is appropriate.
The roles of the different parts of speech, and the different verb tenses (past or subjunctive? conditional or future?), stopped being the goofy impositions of the great grammarian overlords, the honorable William Safire presiding. Instead, they became the Legos brand toy building blocks used to build sentences, paragraphs, and communication between two or more people. Not immutable laws, but they’ve got their uses.
Of course, I came away with this insight only because my natural predilections normally predilecked toward the uses of languages. I’m not so sure the others who similar classes came away with a similar appreciation for the subtle art of speaking and writing clearly. Most of them still like to mix the red blocks with the blue blocks when making a tree, but they’ve had every opportunity to know which pieces are green.