The Good Thing About Learning Spanish
July 14, 2008, 03:57 AM
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Obama's declaration that everybody should make sure their children learn Spanish has relaunched the usual inconclusive discussions in America about what would be the most useful second language to learn. Everywhere else in the world, it's obvious that English is the best second language (except for speakers of minority languages, such as Mixtec-speakers in Mexico, for whom English is the clear best third language).

For example, even though India is growing in importance, it doesn't make sense for Americans to learn an Indian language because there are 15 national languages in India, and everybody who is anybody knows English. In China, there are a number of wildly different-sounding dialects, and, besides, be serious, you are never going to get anywhere with studying Chinese. It might make sense to learn Japanese, since so few Japanese learn English, but the Japanese are creeped out by the sight of white people speaking Japanese fluently, so why inflict that upon them? Lots of 19th Century scholars in gloomy Europe fell in love with Arabic, with its beautiful alphabet, but America has its own desert, so we've never put much emphasis on Arabic.

When I was considering what foreign language to take in 9th grade in 1972, it was widely said that Spanish was the smart choice because if you got rich you could order your servants around more precisely. Oh, and besides, there is all that vibrant Latin culture that we'll no doubt start paying attention to Real Soon Now.

All these years later, you still hear this same logic, but, I have to say, that I haven't noticed upper middle class Americans becoming notably better Spanish speakers. Could it possibly be that they aren't following their own advice? Spanish-language television and radio is now much more widely available across America than in 1972, but those stations sure aren't considered cool.

A big advantage Spanish has, though, is that it's among the simpler major languages. Spanish is kind of like the metric system of languages: it gives the impression that somebody has rationalized it. What's funny is that that seems more like what the modernizing French would do, whereas the Spaniards have tended to be very conservative.

And yet, French is full of quaint medievalisms. For example, the number ninety-nine in French is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf: four twenties ten nine. The French love to go around saying things like Je suis tres cartesian, but there's nothing very Cartesian about four twenties ten nine. In contrast, 99 in Spanish is noventa y nueve: ninety and nine.

D0es anybody know why Spanish seems more straighforward than French? Was there ever a reform movement in Spanish, like how Noah Webster simplified a few English spellings for Americans, but on a larger scale?

My impression is that English has so many irregular spellings not just because of all the different source languages for vocabulary, but because poets actively altered spellings to make words sound better. For example, "solemn" has a seemingly silent "n" at the end because "solemnity" sounds more solemn than "solemity."

Or so I've been told. But, I've noticed that when it comes to etymologies, that there are usually multiple plausible-sounding explanations, so take that with a grain of salt.