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Harrington: Habla Espanol?

04/04/12 5:55PM By Elaine Harrington
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(Host) Many Vermonters are learning foreign languages for use at work, for travel, or for cultural enrichment. College English instructor, former newspaper editor and commentator Elaine Harrington pauses from her Spanish studies to consider the trend.

(Harrington) Last weekend I spent four hours catching up on grammar homework for my Spanish class. All those English cognates seem to make Spanish easy - until you reach the advanced verb tenses.

I've studied Spanish over the years - lessons here and there, informal conversation groups, books and films. A trip to Madrid was my high point of study and enjoyment. But this semester I've made a real commitment - including four UVM classes a week, on-line homework, exams, and compositions in which I write about my life with all the sophistication of a nine-year-old. I'm the only nontraditional student in a class of undergrads.

Becoming bilingual is a long-held goal - for access to the varied cultures of the Spanish-speaking world. Studying Spanish also feeds a part of me that loves words. I want to be able to think and express myself in more than one language.

And I'm not the only Vermonter using this relatively quiet time of year to learn a new language. The Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier hosts "Lunch in a Foreign Language." Just show up with your sandwich and a willingness to speak. Monday is for Hebrew; Tuesday, Italian; Wednesday, Spanish; Thursday, French; and Friday, German. The Fletcher Free Library in Burlington offers immigrants classes in English - and also hosts conversation groups in French, German, and Russian.

This winter Mary Stone of East Montpelier listened to 30 German CDs (the Pimsler method) before she and her husband visited their daughter overseas. "It gave us all the numbers, the basic greetings, and the basics of travel," she says. "And it got us used to hearing the German language spoken." The Stone family also uses Spanish when traveling in Latin America.

Other friends planning foreign trips are downloading Living Language apps onto iPads. Italian is quite popular. Businesspeople going to China - or just across the border to Quebec - usually prepare with some language basics. And college students seeking work in the shops and restaurants along Church Street in Burlington are being asked if they know French, due to so many Canadian tourists. Vermont dairy farmers take Spanish classes to talk with their Hispanic workers. And teachers and health care workers use translators - or study new languages themselves - to communicate with immigrants and refugees. Many Vermonters indeed are expanding their linguistic options.

There's another reason for me to continue with the Spanish subjunctive. New research, according to The New York Times, shows that bilingualism improves the brain's "executive function." Juggling two languages helps people ignore distractions but switch attention "willfully from one thing to another." They also retain information longer and, yes, do ward off Alzheimer's disease.

So the world beckons. As the Rosetta Stone language program advertised: "He was a hard-working farm boy. She was an Italian supermodel." Their website now says: "Think Global. Speak Local."

Romance, business deals, brain power, or just more enjoyment on a future trip. There's lots of motivation to study another language this spring.
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