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Talking the Talk

By Frank Gruber

I am back in Santa Monica after my vacation, and as I write this, on Sunday afternoon, I am still savoring the lox and bagels I ate this morning. When you fly back from Europe straight to the west coast you tend to wake up early the next day. This morning, about six, I realized that the thing for me to do was to drive to Manhattan Bagel and satisfy my urge for a breakfast I couldn't get in Italy.

I need to travel, but wandering is something else. Travel may broaden the mind, I certainly think so, but more so if you have a home to come back to.

I am, however, one of the species "Indefatigibus Berlitzus," one of those perverse optimists who keeps trying to learn a foreign language, in my case Italian, indefinitely even though the results are always the same -- negligible.

I started 20 years ago, first with a private teacher, then with Berlitz tapes. When I got married, my wife joined my obsession and we I took classes at Santa Monica College. Then more self study. Recently I found a website,, and I have been studying on-line.

But still it's the same. I can usually make myself understood in Italian, but I am hopeless at understanding what anyone says, particularly if we are trying to have a real conversation.

This past week, after spending two weeks with my family in their Umbrian village, and after my wife returned to California to attend a conference, my son and I traveled to northern Italy to see two sets of Italian friends. Years ago my wife and I met both families under typical travel circumstances.

We met Marco, who lives near Turin with his wife Cia and three sons, on an flight from Italy to L.A. To brush up on his English, Marco was reading "Charlotte's Web," and that lead to a conversation.

We met other friends, Mariagrazia and Mauro, who live near Milan, on our honeymoon. They happened to be on theirs, too, and somehow two couples in a pizzeria on Capri recognized a postnuptial bound, and we started to talk.

Over the years, the two couples have become quite good friends of ours. We don't see them often, but both couples have boys not too much older than our Henry. We have stayed in touch, and we try to see each other when we can.

This year Henry and I met Marco and Cia and two of their boys for a few days of hiking in the Dolomites, and then we flew back by way of Milan so that we could spend a couple days with Mariagrazia and Mauro and their son, who likes to ride his motor bike and fly model airplanes by remote control.

Without getting too sentimental, these friendships are important to us, we hope they are similarly important to our friends, and it's worth reflecting that these friendships would not exist but for the fact that all four of the other adults learned to speak a foreign language, namely English.

My wife and I have advanced degrees, but neither of us managed to acquire, in all our years in the American educational system, the working grasp of a foreign language.

Our friends' children are learning foreign languages, as you might expect. Not that it's easy for them. They have to work at it. There's an expectation that Europeans fall naturally into multi-lingualism -- perhaps because they start learning languages in elementary school or because of proximity to other countries, but in my experience that is not the case. Very few Italians speak English despite the fact that they start learning it early in school.

Interestingly, when I talked to my friends about how their boys learned languages, they all discounted what the kids learn in elementary school. They characterized foreign language instruction in elementary school as mere "games," by which the kids learned not much beyond colors and how to count.

But starting in middle school, the kids work hard at learning languages. For instance, Mauro's and Mariagrazia's boy took three years of French in middle school and then switched to English in high school.

Marco's and Cia's boys had an advantage because they lived for awhile in the U.S. while Marco was doing research, and they learned basic English by attending American schools, but to solidify their knowledge of the language their parents had the boys each attend the American school in Turin for at least a few years.

But to show how serious Italians can take languages (and, for that matter, learning in general), their boys have attended the local "liceo classico," a public high school in which all the students take a modern language in addition to Latin and ancient Greek. Each year.

The reasons to learn a foreign language go beyond the ability to make international friendships, and in a multi-lingual city like Los Angeles, a city that lives on international commerce, the value of languages should be obvious. Languages are windows into other cultures.

But learning a language also provides the learner with a rigorous framework, like mathematics or music, that is helpful in other fields. Languages engage the brain.

American schools have never given languages a high priority. Except for the bilingual immersion program that starts at Edison Elementary, and an optional, nine-week "exploratory" session available in seventh grade, public schools in Santa Monica and Malibu start foreign language instruction in eighth grade. That's the same as when I was in school 40 years ago, before the "global economy" and before the opening up of immigration quotas.

While elementary school children may not have the intellectual maturity to learn a second language in a classroom, as opposed to by immersion, there is no reason to believe that American sixth graders -- like their counterparts in Italy -- could not do so. And like their counterparts around the world, they will still have time during the day for their other subjects.

Consider the extremely successful music programs at our local schools. Sixth graders learn how to play instruments, read music, and understand more than the rudiments of music theory, in an environment that is both intellectually rigorous and inclusive.

In the context of the latest schools budget crisis, it may seem like dreaming to talk about how schools should not be merely good, but better, but it's time for the schools to start thinking of teaching a second language -- Spanish comes to mind -- beginning in sixth grade.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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