December 30, 2004


Most subjects at universities are taught for no other purpose than that they may be retaught when the students become teachers.

G. C. Lichtenberg

Both of my parents were multilingual. Both spoke and read English and Yiddish fluently. My mother had no accent, but my father did, although he understood more than she did and read more. My mother was fluent in German and my father in Polish. When I was around, they spoke English because they wanted me to be totally American. When they didn't want me to know what they were talking about, they switched languages. I did learn to sing Yiddish songs.

As an adult, I was attending a meeting in Atlantic City when a man approached me on the boardwalk and talked to me in Yiddish. I found that I was able to easily converse with him. I was also able to pass a German exam although I had never taken a course in the language and the professor who examined me said that "I had to close my eyes for some of it."

I took French in high school and flunked it once. What I learned was not how to speak French, but how to conjugate verbs. I suppose that knowing how to conjugate verbs might be important if I wanted to speak perfect French, but it was superfluous if I just wanted to communicate in the language. I speak, read, write excellent English, but not only can I not conjugate English words, but I am not sure that I know what the hell a verb is.

Many years ago I had the delightful experience of talking to a young teacher who taught French at my wife's school. She told me that the French had a most peculiar expression; they said, "I make myself crazy, je m'en fous." I informed her that the expression "Je m'en fous" was not related to the word "fou," which means crazy, but was from the word "foutre," which can mean either the act of sexual intercourse or seminal fluid.

If someone were to ask me how to learn Spanish, I would say, go to Mexico, or some other Spanish-speaking country, for a year and live with a family that speaks no English. Don't try to learn it in school.

I can get around without help in Paris, Berlin. Moscow, Rome and Mexico City. I have learned to ask the important questions in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian. Those are the words for where? to the left or to the right? where can I go to pee?(which I never learned in school), do you speak English? and a few other essential words. I have been complemented on my spoken French and German. I get by in Spanish and Italian by thinking in French and making it sound like Italian and Spanish.

California and New Mexico are now importing bilingual teachers from Mexico and Spain. Are they importing them to teach Spanish? No, they are importing them to teach English. This is the equivalent of importing students to teach experts. If I were importing Spanish speakers, I would do so (as Berlitz language schools did) to teach English speakers how to speak Spanish. They are doing it the other way around. In other words, what passes for "bilingual education" is a farce.

Return to the Education Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page