Learning English by Traveling in Another Language

Those of you who have traveled to a foreign country know how this works: No matter where you travel, you will learn a good deal not only about life in those countries but also about life in your own.

I remember traveling to Belize years ago on a two-week trip and learning that life there was slow and relaxed. A meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. did not mean what I, as an American, thought: that everyone would be present and ready to begin at 2 p.m. In Belize, it meant folks would start getting ready to go to the meeting at 2 p.m. and actually arrive sometime after.

I noticed in Italy that evening meals last a long time and can’t be rushed. If you get a table at an Italian restaurant, it is yours for the entire evening. The meal will feature several courses, and good luck if you try to hurry things along. Shops in Italy also shut down in the middle of the day, often for a couple hours, and popular restaurants often close for an entire month in the summer as the entire family who runs the restaurant goes in ferie (on holiday)—even in the middle of the tourist season.

What I did not expect from traveling was to learn so much about America. By leaving the United States, I began to see my home country in a new light. For example, in Belize and Italy I realized that we Americans have an odd relationship with time. The clock is our master. We are frenetic and don’t know how to live well in the present. We have trouble settling into a three-hour evening meal, and we often see taking a break in the middle of the day as a “waste of time.” I also learned that we constantly record our lives with our smartphones. In the presence of truly great art, our first instinct is to take a photo and then maybe a selfie with the work of art in the background. I also learned that we Americans generally only speak one language.

Learning another language is like traveling abroad and discovering things about your own country in the process. When you grow up in one country, you become so familiar with its customs and practices that you are blind to, or at least unconscious of, many of them. Becoming conscious of something so familiar can be more difficult than we imagine. Yes, we drive on the right side of the street—ever notice that? Yes, our stop signs are red. Oh, and we have stop lights, too, and not many roundabouts. Studying what is unconsciously familiar can be quite tedious. Can you imagine doing a study of the way a drive-through works at a fast-food restaurant, or how to decorate a cake and sing “Happy Birthday?”

Students who have grown up speaking English can also find the study of their native tongue tedious. Notice, Susan, how we attach an s at the end of a word when we want to talk about two or more of a thing. Isn’t that interesting? If you see just one fork on the table, you say “fork.” But if you see two on the table, you will attach an s to “fork” to make it “forks!” Susan might not be too impressed with this. Why? Because she already knows the secret code of “plus s,” even though she can’t remember ever learning it. She doesn’t want to be taught what she can already do—ask for two forks or just one.

Of course, this is because Susan has learned English from infancy by means of imitation and 24/7 immersion. She has learned a great deal of the “secret code” of English by this means. It doesn’t mean that she knows it very well—and to some degree this depends on the quality of speech modeled by her parents, and the quality and number of books that have been read to her or that she has read herself. She does still have some things to learn about her native tongue, but for the moment, I wish to emphasize that she is not naturally very interested in learning more about what she knows she can already do.

What does all of this mean? I think it means that we should not force young, elementary-age students to study English grammar without also teaching them to “travel abroad,” so to speak, in a foreign language. I also think we should make sure that we do not teach English grammar as a disembodied exercise full of tedious rehearsals of what these students have learned already.

I confess that I did not truly learn English grammar until I was eighteen, when I was studying Latin at university. In order to “crack the code” and translate a sentence, I had to master the secrets of declension endings, parts of speech, subject-verb agreement, etc. I learned that a verb could sometimes take an object (“I threw the spear”) and sometimes not (“I threw”). With a shock, I learned that English verbs as well as Latin verbs could be either transitive or intransitive. So this is what my English teacher meant when she talked about transitive and intransitive verbs! To translate a sentence correctly, this understanding was crucial.

Another grammar lesson comes to mind. In Latin I learned that prepositions are words that come before the words they modify and often communicate relationship in space (before the house, outside the house, in the house, etc.). What a delight to learn that the word “preposition” simply means “placed or positioned before” (from the Latin, of course). What a further delight to learn that “verb” comes from the Latin verbum, which simply means “word.” In fact, I was happy to learn that all the grammatical terms we use are derived from Latin. Even “grammar” itself comes from the Greek gramma (“letter”), which was taken into Latin. Latin was opening up the world of language to me, and not just the Latin language; it was shining light on my native tongue as well. By traveling in Latin, I was learning English, and in a way that was illuminating and enjoyable—anything but tedious.

A student who might be bored learning English grammar is much more likely to enjoy the study of English through learning the exotic language of Latin. Because this student will be translating Latin into English, he or she will learn something of English grammar with every sentence he or she translates. Why? Because the structure of grammar in Latin is the same as the grammar in all languages. To study Latin grammar is to study English grammar—and Spanish, French, Italian, German, and even Chinese grammar.

Sadly, we Americans are known as the people who speak just one language. This should change. Not only should we learn another language or two (like the Europeans do!), but we should learn to master our own tongue by studying another. By studying Latin, not only do we learn Latin—we also master English.

I do recommend that English speakers study English grammar, and that they do so by using a good grammar text (like Well-Ordered Language). Such a text is helpful, all the more so if it avoids the abstract exercises of so many English grammar texts. English grammar should be taught in a lively manner, using excerpts from great literature that make use of narrative elements throughout. It should also be lightly integrated with Latin to show the relationship between the two languages. All this will do much to relieve the tedium of English grammar study.

All the more, a student should study Latin alongside English. If a student studies Latin as a core subject (say four to five days a week), he or she will need to study far less English grammar at the same time. In my view, a fourth-grade student using Latin for Children Primer A four days a week would only need to study an English grammar about two days a week, as he or she will learn much of English grammar through the study of Latin.

The advantages of studying both Latin and English grammar simultaneously are much like those of the traveler who goes back and forth between a foreign country and his own—each will shed light on the other. The experience of both languages or cultures also provides the pleasure of variety, preventing one or the other from becoming too familiar—or tedious.

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