Each language has its own unique way of organizing and expressing itself, so it dictates how our mind operates.
“The more languages we speak, then the more flexibility we gain in our thinking,” Shalini Sinha wrote in her column in The Irish Times in 2007 about the value of languages.
In her column, Sinha wrote quite gracefully about how “we are connecting to the wisdom of a people through language, particularly if it has ancient roots,” and that when the “language is one of our own inheritance, we can connect even more.”
Sinha is an Indian who was born and raised in Canada with Hindi as her first language. She was objecting to a recommendation to stop funding Irish immersion schools, gaelscoileanna, where the curriculum is taught in Irish, as part of sweeping cuts in public spending.
She talked about raising her son, who speaks Hindi at home, English in his daily life and Irish in gaelscoil, and how the differences in sentence structure give him flexibility of mind.
I studied Latin, French and Spanish in high school, and French in college, and I started to take lessons in the Irish language recently. It’s a challenge.
My first words — `Hello. How are you? Who are you? Where do you live?’ — were hard won. I was awkward trying out the few words I own so far during my annual visit to Ireland last week to visit cousins Matt andMáiread O’Dowd in my grandfather’s village.
Sinha is right. There is a greater connection because the language is from my inheritance. My grandfather would have spoken Irish in Cloghane, on the Dingle Peninsula, before immigrating to Massachusetts as a young man.
My teacher is John Feeney, who teaches beginner and intermediate classes in Irish at the Greater Danbury Irish Cultural Center. He began learning Irish 15 years ago and has been teaching it about 12 years.
Most of his students are in their 30s or older, when they have a sense of their heritage and want to connect. Some study for a semester and others work years to become fluent.
You can learn a language at any age, says Stacey Alba Skar, assistant professor of world languages and literature at Western Connecticut State University.
She learned Spanish as an adult, and has been told she sounds like a native speaker.
“I would compare learning a language to learning a sport,” she said. When you learn it as a child, you have more flexibility, she said, but adults bring richness and discipline to their studies.
Skar agreed with Sima about the value of learning languages.
“There is a dexterity that is acquired in learning a language. It’s an intellectual dexterity and a cultural dexterity. It is not enough to memorize words. It has to be creating with words,” she said.
“If you can’t find the words you need, you find another way to say something.”
Skar’s found that most highly educated people around the world speak more than one language, except in the United States. This is especially true in Europe, where the closeness of the countries makes it easier.
She teaches students to learn to laugh in the other language rather than seek the perfect translation. “I tell students to look for their correct answer, not the correct answer that has already been written. That’s a life lesson.”
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