Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Why We Should “Waste Time” Learning a Second, Third, or Fourth Language

Vocabulary lists!

Grammar exercises!

Phonetic translations!

A 60 minute audio CD!

Do these sound like fun to you? What about a laundry list of classroom related vocabulary transliterated into English orthography—from report card (el informe/ ehl een-FOHR-meh) to playground (el patio de recreo/ ehl PAH-tyoh deh rreh-KREH-oh)? What about verb conjugation charts? A 3000 word bilingual glossary?

My eyes glaze over as I review the available books on the market directed toward teachers wanting to learn beginner Spanish.  I am momentarily drawn back to Summer 2003 when I wanted to experience beginner world language learning again and I enrolled in a Hebrew Ulpan for 6 weeks in Israel. Colin Baker (2011) writes, “The word Ulpan is derived from an Aramaic root meaning ‘custom, training, instruction, law.’  This movement started in 1948 after the State of Israel was established and emergency measures were needed to teach Hebrew -quickly- to large numbers of immigrants.  Until 1948 Hebrew had been largely a liturgical rather than spoken language –intense cultural activity and language learning helped to shape the nation.

I remember turning the pages of my well worn pocket Hebrew-English dictionary searching for the vocabulary word to complete five sentences about a picture of an elderly man seated on a park bench with a dog. I remember the sweat and fear at night before facing my Israeli teacher in the morning and my classmates who seemed to soar ahead of me either because of their backgrounds from Hebrew school lessons in the States or because they were recent immigrants to Israel and needed to know how to buy a refrigerator in Hebrew and not Amharic or Russian.  I remember feeling frozen on the first day of class when I was asked to describe myself—and I didn’t have the words for soccer, poetry, teacher, or scrabble player.  But I did have my cousin’s Hebrew version of Dr. Seuss’s “My Book About Me.” In the comfort of my aunt’s home in suburban Tel Aviv prior to my arrival at the language institute, I learned to say “I am a girl,” “My hair is brown and curly” and “I have 16 teeth downstairs.”  I had gone to the market with my aunt several times prior to attending language classes and I had also learned to say tomato, green pepper, corn, and chocolate (she was making “Israeli salad” and I wanted the chocolate). So I spewed these vocabulary words as if I were on Dick Clark’s $10,000 Pyramid game and the category clue was “Misha’s first and only words in Hebrew.”

While I can remember the exasperated feeling of studying a foreign language late into the night to complete my practice exercises, I also remember moments when the vocabulary lists came to life.  I had just learned the Hebrew word for terrorist (this was in the vocabulary list with buying a refrigerator).  Only a few weeks after my arrival I picked up a copy of Haaretz, a Hebrew language newspaper, and there was the word “terrorist” several times between the front page and the want ads listing all kinds of kitchen appliances. It seemed strange as a beginning language learner to have “terrorist” appear alongside lists which included household items and parts of the body.  However, when I googled for more information about Nehariya, an Israeli city where I would soon visit with extended relatives, the first automatic pairing that appeared was “Nehariya – Attack.”  It became abundantly clear that if one wanted to learn Hebrew in contemporary Israeli society and keep all one’s body parts, that “terrorist” was just such a word one wanted to learn sooner rather than later.

Reading over these beginner Spanish books reminds me of this experience with language learning in Israel, but what I can’t remember now are any of the Hebrew words I learned from my own study of word lists.  “I’d like some Chocolate,” “What’s your name?” “You have a nice refrigerator”—I must have said each of these phrases a dozen times during my six weeks of study, visits to relatives’ houses, and tourism.  Did I fail as a student of language learning? Did I waste thousands of shekels on my courses, the plane ticket and chocolate bars if the result is back to square one? This was nine distant summers ago and since then I’ve had very few opportunities to use communicative Hebrew.  In fact, my bilingual Israeli uncle predicted this would come to pass.

“Why would you want to study Hebrew?”

“I’m a linguist and a language educator—I love learning and teaching languages and I haven’t learned another language fluently other than Spanish in a long time.”

“But no one speaks Hebrew. Why don’t you study Russian? Or Chinese?”

You speak Hebrew.”

“But I also speak English. You’re going to study Hebrew but you’re not going to speak it to anybody.  It’s a waste of time.”

Hmph, I remember thinking.  I’ll decide what is a waste of my time! I also wanted to study Hebrew so I could feel more connected to my family’s language.  But as a person of Jewish descent with Yiddish and German as languages of “inheritance” and Hebrew a relatively new, adopted language of home, my “family language” is quite unclear.  Having nation-state as well as institutional (religious) status, Hebrew may seem like the most “valid and authorized” language of the Jewish people. But here was a member of my own family telling me he’d already learned English so why study something so unncessary, something I would never practically use?

When my six weeks of study had ended, I visited for a week with non-English speaking relatives in the Northern part of the state on my own when my need for Hebrew loomed large and impossible.  I remember the awkward silences when I had already exhausted my lists of produce and descriptions of my brown hair and brown eyes.  The show “Friends” was playing but it was dubbed in Hebrew and I couldn’t laugh along with my peer-aged cousins.  I was a dead linguistic weight at parties.  We used smiles, gestures, and at times avoided one another all together.  Then mid-week a Spanish word slipped out when I was reaching for one in Hebrew.  My elder cousin’s husband, Yom Tov, asked, “¿Usted habla español?” Yes! I said YES! ! I rattled off all the words I had been storing in the winter of my silent language acquisition period.  Yom Tov was of sephardic descent and grew up in former Yugoslavia speaking Ladino, the spoken and written language of Jews of Spanish origin. Despite the fact that the Ladino language is a variety from 14th and 15th century Spain and Portugal when the Jews were expelled, we could still understand one another. Yom Tov and his wife Ruthy took me to the local police station to purchase fresh eggs, we took a boat tour of their coastal city, we travelled to museums and dance festivals.  I began to think my investment in Hebrew resulted in a new understanding of Spanish diversity and a personal connection to the Spanish language I had not anticipated.

This is not to regret the six weeks I spent studying Hebrew vocabulary lists and the awkward nights I spent trying to write using cursive Hebrew consonants and dots for vowels.  Serious language learning of any kind is a form of character building, I reasoned, so that embedded within struggles to acquire discrete parts of language are lessons in culture, humility, second language acquisition processes, and communication with a capital “C.” Linguistic Anthropologist, Dell Hymes,  discussed the difference between competence and performance in a language—that despite the absence of grammatical or cogntive feasibility or social appropriateness, living people get things done through second, third, and fourth languages regardless.  Becoming a beginning language learner in any non-English language places the U.S. learner in the shoes of an essential human boundary crossing experience—one that continues to be lived daily by those who are immigrants in this country and whose children often appear in our classrooms.

Most teachers to whom these beginner Spanish books are directed can’t afford to leave their families and classrooms to take 6 weeks off to study Spanish in Mexico and I would bet that few teachers are going to actually use McGraw-Hill’s Spanish for Educators text or even online language progams such as Rosetta Stone with enough regularity to become fluent or absorb the “more than 3,000 key Spanish words and phrases” they claim to teach.  However, unlike my experience learning (and quickly losing) beginner Hebrew, Spanish language use has a daily, living purpose in many teachers lives.  There are Walmarts all around us (not to mention the much more interesting and vital small Mexican tiendas and weekly “pulgas”, Spanish for “fleas” short for “flea markets”) where Spanish vocabulary can be touched and tasted—selling pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread), Caribeño Goya products, even Saints candles or veladoras.  There are Spanish language newspapers, television and radio stations, markets and celebrations all around us where we can learn language in context and build bilingual relationships over a lifetime greater than intensive, but isolated, language study abroad.  But my Israeli uncle’s voice nudges me, asks again:

“But why would anyone learn Spanish when all the Spanish speakers are learning to speak English? You’re going to end up speaking in English.  It’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

Certainly, there is an element of truth.  While many in the U.S. believe that Spanish speaking immigrants “never learn English,” this is a misinformed misperception.  Sociologist and demographer, Calvin Veltman (1990) has created a generational model of language shift documenting that by the third generation, all Latinos speak English regularly and less than 20% continue to speak Spanish, with fewer than 4% preferring to speak Spanish rather than English (p. 122).

The value and power of English has prevented generations of Americans from needing to spend time learning other languages or valuing and preserving their own families’ non-English linguistic resources.  If we seek motivation by need alone, then we will never move beyond our widespread monolingualism, denying English speakers the opportunity to deepen our understanding of how language and communication work in other cultural systems as well as furthering understanding of our own English language and cultural system.  We must move from need to want, we must want to become language learners as adults so that we model for children the real possibilities of a life time of world wide language learning.

“Mommy, Mommy!” My son shouts and runs into the kitchen where I am grading papers.  He is watching Toy Story 3 in the other room.  “Buzz light year is speaking Spanish!  They pushed his button!”

Would that we could all push a button and start spewing out vocabulary in another language.  In bed that night Oren asks me if I can say various words in Spanish.  “Wall,” he says.

Pared,” I answer.



He looks up at the glow in the dark stickers around his room.  “Star!”


“You know everything Spanish!” he says, impressed by our short translation exercise.  What parent doesn’t want to hear they know it all?  I don’t tell him how many words I don’t yet know in Spanish but I do try to model for him that I want to learn more and that learning in context and interaction is the best way to acquire communication skills in another language.  For me learning Spanish and bits and pieces of Hebrew, Turkish, French, and other languages is because I have been lucky enough to experience the joy that comes with questioning cultural and linguistic assumptions.

Learning a second or third or fourth language helps to develop this questioning into a lifelong intercultural skill—questioning assumptions for what a casserole looks like, or when and how to give a compliment, invite someone to dinner, even how to ask and answer a question. In an increasingly diverse cultural and lingustic society, we must develop such intercultural skills in order to communicate with those who are different and there is no better way to develop this skill than through exercises in learning another language—regardless of the fluency level attained.

Do I recommend these beginner Spanish books for teachers? Maybe.  Having a book filled with everyday language and Spanish for professional purposes can indeed be helpful as a reference or resource for practice and support. More often than not, an online bilingual dictionary can be just as helpful if not more so.  Without meaningful contexts for regular practice and genuine desire, vocabulary lists are static and useless.

What kind of book can be written to cultivate such desire to “waste time” studying langugaes other than English?  What resources are those that are the most useful for learning Spanish or another language in a timely and joyful manner? I intend to write my way through to the answers!

Hymes, D. H. (1971) Competence and performance in linguistic theory.  In  R. Huxley and E. Ingram (eds) Language Acquisition: Models and Methods. New York: Academic Press.

Veltman, C. (1990). The status of the Spanish language in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century.  International Migration Review, 24 (1), 108-123. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2546674

One response to “Why We Should “Waste Time” Learning a Second, Third, or Fourth Language

  1. Daniel Gutierrez January 19, 2014 at 5:42 pm


    Just read through your interesting article. I am a bilingual spanish/english speaker from chicago. I am currently working on developing my third language, russian.
    I have the advantage of working with russian people and been making good use of free apps, you tube and free newspaper from russian store.
    I would like to learn portuguese one day but the problem is who to practice with.
    I think the key is immersion.


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