How I changed my mind about learning languages

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I’d never been interested in other languages. My grandfather spoke a Sicilian dialect that was equal parts scary and impossible to understand. It was his only language, and so many people in my family spoke it with him, but not me. I was the youngest and the least interested. When my grandfather died, I was separated from any other second language until high school, where I was required to take Spanish. I was a rotten Spanish student, showing no interest in or inclination towards the textbook pedagogy. My accent was awful, and my ability to retain vocabulary was downright embarrassing. I kept up my incompetence with Spanish right through college, where, upon graduation, I bid farewell to my time with another tongue.

shutterstock_56149909Then something happened. As an adult, I became quite interested in European culture—mostly food and wine, and mostly Italian. After a trip through Italy with my wife, I came up with the crazy idea of living in Italy for a while. And a few years later, in conjunction with my plans to pursue a new career as a writer and teacher, my wife and I (with our 18-month-old daughter in tow) were off to live in Tuscany for a year. The onus was on me to manage the adventure—it was my idea, after all. I so wished I’d paid closer attention to my grandfather’s Italian…

Still, I began to regularly study Italian through a variety of language programs—books, and books on tape, and audio conversations where I eavesdropped on language classes conducted by a master. All in all, I learned some Italian by working very hard. I had my family to consider, and there’s no motivation better than that, so I endured through the struggle, and I arrived in Italy with enough knowledge to ensure we could not get lost, and that we could order well in restaurants. By the end of the year, I had—obviously—improved, but it was a struggle throughout, one that could have been alleviated by a better learning model.

Even with the imperfect method that I used to learn my Italian, it occurred to me that there were benefits to a second language beyond not getting lost and ordering well in restaurants. I could sense an improvement in my cognitive skills. My facility with English improved (which helped my writing career), and I am certain that a small speech impediment that plagued me since childhood had been cured (which helped my work in the classroom). Overall, I just felt improved on an intellectual level—more confident in a myriad of ways. I had to attribute it to the learning of a second language.

A few years after we returned to the States, my daughter’s grammar school began a dual language immersion program in French. We, of course, requested a place in the class and were thrilled when she was accepted in the program’s second year. She began first grade immersed in French for half of her academic day. She will finish the 5th grade this spring and move on into middle school academically fluent in French. I am certain that her learning of a second language helped her academically in ways beyond French.

I’m particularly proud of my daughter’s accomplishment since she did it without having a French speaker in the house. I tried to learn French, but I was useless to her after second grade. And although it was tough at times for her, she made it through and is all the better for it.

My son is in his second year in the program now. I want to be there for him, so I am going to take another shot at learning French. I’m well aware of the Rosetta Stone reputation, and I am anxious to use this program as the primary engine for my experience in French. Thankfully, we are surrounded by Francophones, so I will have people to speak with in person, but the primary source of my education will be the Rosetta Stone program.

I’ll look forward to posting a monthly blog that details my progress.



Andrew Cotto is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of THE DOMINO EFFECT and OUTERBOROUGH BLUES: A BROOKLYN MYSTERY. Andrew’s articles have appeared in many national journals, including the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Men’s Journal, Salon.com, the Good Men Project and Teachers & Writers Magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. More about Andrew can be found at his website.

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