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Romancin' the Languages

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

When I was twelve, my parents decided to send me to French immersion school. Now, the sudden requirement to wear a uniform aside, it was a life-changing decision for me, starting a love affair with languages that definitely gives me an edge on this trip.

French wasn't my second language; it wasn't even really my third. From kindergarten I had attended a Hebrew day school and was already fluent in that language by grade 6 (albeit with a sixth grader's vocabulary), and along with some rudimentary grade-school French, we also learned some Yiddish, a language that my grandparents spoke fluently but that wasn't really common currency outside the walls of my school.

For the first year at my new school, I learned French because it was required. I enjoyed it, to a certain degree---learning Hebrew had already wired my brain for new language acquisition, and I found it relatively easy---but it wasn't something I actively took an interest in out of the pure joy of understanding how language worked.

No, that came later, when I began to study Latin. Yes, my new school offered Latin, a definite rarity these days. For two years, I studied the tongue that gave us all the Romance languages, and suddenly, French no longer stood in isolation. I started to understand the connections between Latin, French, and even English. The inflected nature of Latin intrigued me; roots and cognates made my mind whirl with understanding of new vocabulary.

By the time I graduated high school, I had become a language geek.

I briefly considered studying linguistics in university (a boring first-day lecture turned me off, sadly). I took a course called Evolution et la structure de la langue française in my first year, a course almost entirely devoted to hunting down the etymologies of modern French words in some of the dustiest corners of the university library. I was probably the only person in my full-year Old English course who took it voluntarily, and not because it was the only course to fulfill the pre-1800s requirement of my English Literature degree that fit my timetable: I translated scraps of Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon riddles with dogged glee. My Honors thesis on the medieval French poetess Christine de Pisan had me dissecting the French equivalent of Chaucerian English, using every ounce of etymological knowledge I'd acquired in that first-year course.

And I loved it. Such things were like big linguistic puzzles that had tangible understanding of works and words as their rewards.

Today, I'm still reaping those rewards, but add to them the fact that, with an understanding of cognates, I've been able to function passably well in the countries I've visited on this trip. From Amsterdam to Madrid to Lisbon to Rome, I've put that understanding to exhaustive use trying to decipher menus, street signs, public transportation name it.

Things were especially tough in Portugal. I'd encountered Spanish and Italian before on previous trips, but Portuguese was a strange new animal. David had already amused me with his earnest attempts to decipher French signs while we were in Paris (often the best results came from his occasionally willful use of false cognates); now we both enjoyed trying to sort out Portuguese. On that day when I was sick in bed, he took some photos for me to illustrate how useful it could be to be able to play this game:


Know when not to cross the line!


Sorry, folks, we're closed. Indefinitely.


Oh, so that's what that smell is!

If you have students who have another language, particularly one that's related in some way to English, chances are they've played this game before, even if unconsciously. They have the edge when doing exercises like the one Traci Gardner suggests in a recent Bedford Bits blog post on analyzing visuals. They probably have stronger vocabularies than many of their peers, and the cognitive mechanisms in place for figuring out new words from their roots or cognates.

But even for students who do not speak one of those languages, introducing them to the world of cognates can be useful and even fun. Make a game of it. False cognates are especially fun, and can lead to discussion of how to guess at word meanings based on prior knowledge of similar words. From there, take them to an etymological dictionary---this is one of my standard go-to sites that I introduce to my students---so they can see for themselves how roots and semantic shifts work together to produce cognates and false cognates (the latter often being related in some way to one another, even if indirectly).

Learning how language works, and not just learning the languages themselves, can open up a world to your students in so many ways beyond simply reading and writing well.