Americans and Learning a Second Language Learning a second language is not necessarily required or expected of students in America -- but virtually everywhere else in the world, it is. What factors determine what second languages Americans choose to learn?
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Americans and Learning a Second Language

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Americans and Learning a Second Language

Americans and Learning a Second Language

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

You may not be aware of it, but 2005 has been designated the year of foreign language study here in the US. If your application to Berlitz is still pending, you're not alone. Despite our polyglot origins, less than 10 percent of Americans can speak anything other than their native tongue fluently, and English speakers are notoriously monolingual. By contrast, a recent European Union survey shows that about half of all European citizens speak another language, and eight out of 10 students are conversational in at least one foreign language.

In much of the world, the second language of choice is English, often described as `the language of opportunity.' And that's part of the reason that English speakers often don't go to the trouble to learn anything else. But in some neighborhoods in New York, Miami or Los Angeles, `por favor' or `gracias' can take you a lot further than `please' and `thank you.' Some immigrants to the United States find Spanish, Korean, Mandarin or Hindu more useful than English, at least at first.

Later in the program, voters in Liberia hope that today's election will help that country recover from seemingly ceaseless civil war, and your letters. But first: What's your second language, and why? Did you learn it by choice, by necessity or at your grandmother's knee? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is

Joining us now is Rosemary Feal. She's executive director of the Modern Language Association. She's with us from NPR's bureau in New York City.

Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. ROSEMARY FEAL (Executive Director, Modern Language Association): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: So why would some immigrants start picking up Korean, Spanish or Mandarin before they learned English?

Ms. FEAL: Well, you know, that's like a lot of what goes on in the rest of the world, where many languages co-exist in one nation and people have to use a common language that's not their native language to communicate with one another. One thing, I think, that all immigrants to the United States have in common, though, is the need and, in fact, the desire to learn English eventually so that they can function fully in American society. But, of course, immigrants are very pragmatic, and if learning Spanish is the way to get a job and keep a job, that's what they'll do.

CONAN: And if you're a Spanish speaker and get a job working for a Hindi, you might learn that language first.

Ms. FEAL: Exactly. I think many of us who live in New York have the experience of riding in a taxi and questioning the driver where he or she is from, and hearing one language and then trying out another with the driver, and by the time the ride is done you've had a little bit of a conversation in maybe five to 10 languages.

CONAN: As you're stammering around, trying to find something in common that you can communicate with.

Ms. FEAL: That's right.

CONAN: But Spanish, of course, is far and away the leading second language in the United States, for obvious reasons, but has that always been the case?

Ms. FEAL: It has not always been in the case, but it is true that in the most census, the following information stands out. Eighty-two percent of people over the age of five speak English in the home in the United States. Of the remaining approximately 18 percent who speak a language other than English, 60 percent of those speak Spanish.


Ms. FEAL: Naturally, at earlier times in American history, other languages were dominant. I come from a family of Italian and German speakers, and I know many of the listeners can name the heritage languages that their grandparents and great-grandparents came to the country with, and it won't always be Spanish in the majority of the cases.

CONAN: What determines which language, which second language, if you will, an American chooses to learn or feels the necessity to learn?

Ms. FEAL: The research that we do at the Modern Language Association shows us several things, and in speaking with my colleagues who are language teachers like myself, I hear a lot of reasons. In fact, I often say that there are as many reasons individuals have to learn a language as there are languages. The primary thing chat connects them is they want--students want to understand a different language, a different culture, and they know that learning those languages opens those doors to new opportunities. Sometimes they will pick a language entirely for vocational reasons. For example, if you want to work in the medical profession in San Francisco, and you know that you'll have many speakers of Spanish, of Korean, of Tagalog, come into your medical setting. It would be a wonderful addition to your skills to have at least one of those languages.

Another reason that students give is they want to learn the language of their grandparents or their great-grandparents, or perhaps they want to further a language that they've already heard in the home, so they'll take the heritage language in either the high school, if it's offered, or in the post-secondary school, college or university, where a great variety of lesser commonly taught languages are offered.

And finally, I think a lot of language students simply want to expand their educational experience, and acquire a deeper humanistic view of their studies. Languages are a part of the traditional liberal-arts curriculum, and so I think students want to expand their learning in that way, int eh same way they might take history or archaeology or biology.

CONAN: Hm. Let's get listeners involved in the conversation. Our number is (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address is What is your second language, and why?

Let's talk to Fernando, Fernando calling us from San Antonio.

FERNANDO (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

FERNANDO: Very quickly, I had a retired professor of linguistics as a next-door neighbor, who spoke five languages, and he would ask you: What do you call someone who speaks more than two languages? Multilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And what do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FERNANDO: Well, my--the reason I'm calling--English is my second language. Spanish was my first. And I really didn't have to learn how to speak English till I was about maybe nine or 10 years old. But growing up in El Paso, attending an elementary school that was 98 percent Hispanic, many of us--I would venture to say that the vast majority of us--didn't really speak English until we were about nine or 10 years old, 'cause we really didn't have to. But Spanish was strongly discouraged, to the point of being rapped on the knuckles with rulers. And now we're talking about 30-some-odd years ago. Today, as a native Spanish speaker, I'm very marketable, which is kind of ironic that it was discouraged then, but it's really encouraged now.

CONAN: And, of course--discouraged then but, of course, always a cultural advantage and now, you're suggesting, also a commercial advantage, too.

FERNANDO: It--that's correct. I'm the unofficial interpreter at our hospital. I work at a local hospital as a nurse here, and we have lots of Spanish-speaking patients, both from the San Antonio area and from northern Mexico as well. When I was in college in Philadelphia, I took Italian, so I'm pretty proficient in Italian as well. My wife, who is a non-Spanish speaker, really encourages me to speak Spanish to our children, and our four-year-old daughter loves to speak Spanish and is constantly asking me, `How do you say this in Spanish? How do you say that in Spanish?' So I'm grateful that I speak, I guess, three languages, which makes me, I guess, a little bit more marketable in whatever I want to do as a nurse, really as anything. I'm encouraging our children to speak Spanish, and they're doing just fine.

CONAN: Well, Fernando, ciao. Thank you very much.

FERNANDO: (Italian spoken)

CONAN: Let me ask you, Rosemary Feal--as Spanish continues to boom as a second language in this country, I wonder is it, in any sense, supplanting any other languages?

Ms. FEAL: Let me just say a bit about the caller. (Spanish spoken) Americano. Even though the joke about Americans being monolingual holds to some degree, you can also see, from his trilingualism, that Americans, indeed, are multilingual and are proud of that heritage and are encouraging their children to continue with that heritage.

In our most recent--the Modern Language Association did its most recent study of foreign-language enrollments in colleges and universities in 2002, and we found that all languages grew by about 17 percent, some of them dramatically, including American Sign Language which, interestingly, is often categorized with foreign languages at colleges and universities. But Asian languages also grew considerably, specifically Chinese, Korean, Japanese. So, of course, did Middle Eastern languages, like Arabic. But all languages are up. So I don't think you can say Spanish has displaced, but rather has amplified the panorama of languages that students take. Clearly, many students find a more practical use for Spanish in their careers, as your caller just indicated. But the general interest in languages among American students has never been stronger.

CONAN: Learning a second language is not necessarily required or expected of students in this country. Virtually everywhere else in the world, it is. Richard Brecht joins us now. He's executive director of the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language, and he's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. RICHARD BRECHT (Executive Director, Center for Advanced Study of Language): My pleasure.

CONAN: So is English the second language of choice around the world?

Mr. BRECHT: There's no question that, now, English is the most popular learned second language in all parts of the world. It's hard to find anyplace where that isn't the case.

CONAN: Hm. You would think, though, that in some parts of the world, maybe central Asia, Chinese would be a natural second language--Mandarin.

Mr. BRECHT: There are place--yeah, exactly. There are places where, if you will, that English is still dominant, but other languages, historically, are important. For instance, in central Asia--it's a good question--Russian is still a lingua franca across many of the languages of central Asia, and--but that is a language that is part of the education system. It's even official language in many of those countries, but then the foreign language, if you will, the acquired language that doesn't have a basis in the society, is English.

CONAN: Hm. I wonder; in many parts of the world which were, of course, colonized by various groups--in this country, the American Indian...

Mr. BRECHT: Right.

CONAN: ...Indian languages have been largely supplanted by English. Is that true in other areas?

Mr. BRECHT: It's interesting, because in the United States, the autochthonous or the original languages, indigenous languages, and populations, as you know, were greatly suppressed. And so it's been a kind of an open market in the United States. And what's predominant in our education system are the colonial languages of French and Spanish and English and German. In the rest of the world, that's not the case, as a rule. The languages are tied to the land, and the people are tied to the land, and so even in central Asia, for instance, or in north Africa as an example, French colonies--the north African countries were French colonies. And French is very strong there by historical tradition, but Arabic now is the national language of most of those countries, and the dialects of Arabic and even Berber are very strong in those languages.

But the tradition in the United States is we learn second languages, except for our immigration. It's a second-language-learning issue. But in most parts of the world, it's: What's the language of the hearth? What's the language of the village? What's the language of the region? And what's the language of the country?

CONAN: And those can all be different.

Mr. BRECHT: And they can be different, and then you can learn a foreign language, if you like.

CONAN: We're going to continue our conversation after we get back from a short break. Our number, if you'd like to join the conversation--what's your second language and why?--(800) 989-8255. You can send us e-mail:

I'm Neal Conan. It's to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today about second languages and, of course, we want to hear from you. If you've learned another language, which did you choose and why? Or was it chosen for you? If you're thinking about it, what's holding you back? Our number, if you'd like to join us, is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. You can send us e-mail at Our guests are: Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association; and Richard Brecht, who's director of the National Foreign Language Center in Washington, DC.

And here's an e-mail from Marjorie Terrelli in Canandaigua, New York: `One topic left out of your introduction,' she writes, `is the question of Native American languages,' which we were talking about just before the break. `My fiance is a Houma Indian from Louisiana. His parents spoke Houma and French. He was taught English at a mission school as a child. His parents were so concerned that he not be discriminated against that they did not teach him the language as he grew. He also had to leave home as a small child to attend school in New Orleans. The local schools were closed to Native Americans until the 1960s. In spite of his nearly lifetime lived in English-speaking culture, he still thinks in French and uses that language with his brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, the Houma language and culture has been nearly destroyed by the cultural pressures. By the way, Houma and other Indians were some of the worst affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in both St. Bernard and Terrebonne parishes.'

Thanks very much.

And that, I think, Richard Brecht, is what you were talking about.

Mr. BRECHT: Yeah, exactly, that--and this is an issue around the world. Language choice for a government--it's an official choice that people make. Which languages will we teach? Which languages will we teach in or which language will we teach in? And so around the world, the minorities in each country have to fight in order to maintain their identity and their language. And in the United States, the indigenous languages of the Native Americans have been lost, and that's a great tragedy for our country.

CONAN: Here's another e-mail, this from Mark Smith. `Keep in mind the many fake languages, such as Elvish, pig Latin and Klingon. Currently, more people speak Klingon that speak Navajo,' at least according to this writer.

Mr. BRECHT: Yeah.

CONAN: He says he personally speaks H.P. Lovecraft's R'lyehian--I'm not sure how to pronounce that--as a pet language, for fun, of course. And, Rosemary Feal, I wanted to bring up another e-mail we got, which is somewhat along the same lines, this from Neil in Boulder, Colorado: `My best second language,' he writes, `is Esperanto. It is five times easier to learn than other languages and lets me talk to and often stay with Esperanto speakers in most parts of the world. Esperanto speakers are really interesting people, and learning Esperanto really helped me learn Spanish,' he writes.

Well, if you're choosing to learn to speak Klingon or, for that matter, Esperanto, these are intellectual decisions that people are making, no?

Ms. FEAL: To a degree they're intellectual; they're also about people's passions. I think, for example, learning Esperanto is very much a theoretical acceptance that a universal language is possible. So those who study Esperanto, it helps them with romance languages, but it also helps them realize a very personal passion.

Neal, I'd like to go back for a moment to the linguistic matter of Native American languages, the caller from Canandaigua, New York. This is a really important question in the United States today. Right now there is a project going on sponsored by the NSF and the NEH, the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, to document and preserve Native American languages. They are being taught throughout the United States. They are being studied. But many of them only have a handful of living speakers. So the interest in preserving our Native American language heritage is very strong, and I want to thank the caller for raising this issue today.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Danny. Danny's calling us from San Bernardino, California.

DANNY (Caller): Yes. Thank you so much for having me on the show.

CONAN: Sure.

DANNY: I wanted to share my experience. I teach Arabic at one of the public universities, California State University in San Bernardino, and we've seen since four years, although the program was agreed upon prior to the tragic events of 9/11--but there were a couple of schools who realized the importance of offering Arabic language in a place where, one, we have a lot of business, and we also have to work with some, if not, you know, more countries in the Middle East. So we've seen a tremendous growth in enrollment. Students almost doubled. We started with one year Arabic. Now we offer two years, and then--now we're going to--two years' worth of Arabic, and now we have, like, minors and major. And this is not only across our campus, but this is probably nationwide.


DANNY: And I wanted to also share with you that the interest in Arabic is not only because we are only in a war, and it does, indeed, open up opportunities for some people to join the Foreign Service. But it's also an academic language, because a lot of people study this because of their interest in Islam.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DANNY: Since academic--there was a lot of scholarship written about Islam. Interestingly, also, since Muslims lived--or Arabic was spoken in the Iberian Peninsula, there are some departments, like, I believe, the University of Colorado in Boulder, that teaches Arabic as part of their Spanish and Portuguese department. So it's also part of the Spanish heritage. The people are interested into Arabic to see what was happening about a thousand years ago.

CONAN: Richard Brecht, you were talking earlier about this idea that, well, certainly Arabic has undergone an explosion of study the last few years.

Mr. BRECHT: Yeah, that's right. In the United States, since the year 2000 or 2001, it's practically tripled in enrollments. However--in the university. However, the problem is that, at that time, there were approximately 5,000 people in the US taking Arabic, which--so the tripling of that number, whereas it's a good thing to happen, it's a trivial final number compared to where it ought to be in the United States.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And let me ask you, Rosemary Feal--this is certainly not the only war which has affected language study here in the United States or second languages.

Ms. FEAL: That's absolutely correct. We often see at the MLA in our studies a correlation between the languages that are of interest in the world and the languages students study in colleges and universities in the United States. The United States government put a lot of resources in the Sputnik era into the study of Russian. In fact, some of our most distinguished sociologists--Sovietologists and also sociologists, for that matter, come of that kind of initiative. We have seen, however, that the interest, as your caller just indicated, in Arabic is accompanied by a general interest.both in languages in the Middle East and in all languages generally. We expect--Richard Brecht is right--there were only 5,000-some students studying Arabic in colleges and universities in 1998, and we have a long way to go. But in 1998, there were practically a million and a half undergraduates and graduates studying languages. So that's not small in the larger scheme of things.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Danny, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

DANNY: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And, Richard Brecht, just before we let you go, given that Americans and English speakers are notoriously monolinguistic, what do people in other English-speaking countries--in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand--what languages do they study?

Mr. BRECHT: It's very interesting that the English-speaking countries generally share the same fate. In Great Britain, it is a struggle to get people to learn languages. They learn mostly French because that's their neighbor, and so on. But it's still a struggle to this day, where they're trying to get more people to study more languages. If you take Australia, it's another situation. Somehow or other, in the '60s, Australians came to understand that they were more a part of Asia than they were of the British Empire. And so by the mid-'80s, they had a language policy in Australia that said, basically, everybody should know English. If you have another language, you should keep it. You have a right to keep it. If you don't have another language, you have an obligation to get it. So by the mid-'80s, Australia came to a national decision to have a language policy--excuse me--advocating bilingual citizenry, and that's a remarkable thing that this country should learn from.

CONAN: Richard Brecht, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. BRECHT: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Richard Brecht is executive director of the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language, and came in to join us here in Studio 3A.

Well, whether you're obliged to keep that second language or not, learning a second language as an adult can be a daunting challenge. Kids seem to pick up languages very easily. But what about after we're grown? Joining us here in Studio 3A to talk about this is Michael Long. He's a professor of Second Language Acquisition and director of the University of Maryland's School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

Nice to have another Terrapin here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to join us.

Professor MICHAEL LONG (Director, University of Maryland School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures): Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: Myth or fact: The sooner you start learning a second language, the easier it is.

Prof. LONG: Jury's still out. I believe it is easier. I think the data are overwhelmingly in favor of an early start, if you want nativelike achievement. However, adult starters do very well, too, providing they have high language aptitude sufficient motivation and time on task. However, there's no question, overall, children do better than adults. They start slower, but they catch up. It's like hare and tortoise. Adults take out very, very fast; older children, too, but over the long run, the younger children are the only ones who seem to be able to get up to nativelike levels.

CONAN: Is it--are all languages equally difficult or easy for kids to learn? And what about adults?

Prof. LONG: That's another interesting bit of evidence as to the difference between them. It's--the fact of the matter is that all languages seem to be approximately equally hard or easy, whichever way you look at it, for children, so that children learning Arabic, say, as their first language, or Turkish or French or Spanish, are all doing roughly the same thing at roughly the same age, and 99.9 percent of them become native speakers of that language; whereas for adults, the picture is very, very different. Government data show that, in fact, the government separates four categories of language, that those same languages--Arabic, Chinese and so forth--take at least three times as long to reach the same intermediate level of proficiency for an American speaker of English, as do Spanish or French. So Spanish or French they can get from zero to low-intermediate level in 20 weeks of full-time instruction, whereas Arabic takes 44 weeks.

CONAN: Hm. Here's...

Prof. LONG: Something seems to have changed, in other words, between children and adults. Something's happened in the brain.

CONAN: And do we know when that break is? Thirteen years old?

Prof. LONG: There are rival claims about that. Increasingly, people who do research in this area think that it's somewhere between four and six that the ability to learn a nativelike phonology is no longer guaranteed. After that, if you start later, you--some people can still do it, but after 13, really, the game's up. The morphology, syntax, the grammar, if you like--mid-teens. Not everybody accepts that.

Ms. FEAL: This is Rose...

CONAN: Go ahead.

Ms. FEAL: This is Rosemary Feal. My mother, who's listening, I'm sure won't accept it. I became fully bilingual at age 17 when I went away and studied Spanish intensely. I pass for a native speaker in every Spanish country I go to, and I don't like to think of myself as a case of arrested development, but rather fairly typical, and I know many of my colleagues in the Modern Language Association also are practically bilingual, if not bilingual, in a language acquired post-age 13.

CONAN: Well, Michael, there certainly are people like Rosemary who do pick it up, and there are people like me who try to pick it up and it's like a brick wall.

Prof. LONG: Absolutely. Rosemary's correct, and there are people--I said mid-teens--it's usually plus or minus two--we're talking about human beings, not chemicals in a test tube, so we get outliers. Notice probably people who work in LA are not typical language learners, otherwise they wouldn't be there. They have a real yen to do well in it. The data, though, are overwhelmingly in favor of the generalization that young children do better than adults in the long run. And very few adults--very few--vanishingly few make nativelike levels.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Clayton Robinson(ph). `I started learning German because of a high school exchange student I fell for when I was a freshman in college. After she broke my heart I became an exchange student myself in the Netherlands where I met yet another German exchange student. I spent the next few years mastering the German language so I could speak with my monolingual parents-in-law. My wife grew up in the former East Germany and had to take Russian and Czech in school, but was never conversational in either, despite living only a few miles from the Czech Republic. After being an au pair in Denver for one year in 1994, her only true second language is English.' So I guess it can go all over the map.

We're talking about second languages today. Which is yours and why?

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: And let's get another caller on the line. And this is Ted--Ted, calling us from Palmer, Alaska.

TED (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.

TED: Ah, good. Thank you. I just wanted to add my daughter is a language linguistics major in college and has been able to spend some time in France, and she's currently at the University of Cork. And she made an observation earlier this fall that there seem to be to her a basic difference between the way that her international student friends approached languages as opposed to the way that her US student friends approach languages. The international students seem to approach languages as a very real tool that they fully expected to be using almost on a daily basis throughout the rest of their life, whereas her US student friends seem to be approaching the languages either as intellectually interesting--they were French majors because they were interested in French literature...

CONAN: Right.

TED: ...or they needed it for their degree or something.

CONAN: Here we have an e-mail exactly on that subject from Molly McKinnen(ph) in Lawrence, Kansas. `My second language is Polish and that was chosen because I wanted access to Polish literature. Last spring I completed an MA in Polish lit and despite the great difficulties in acquiring this language, doing so has allowed me to read some of the world's greatest poets in their own language.' Rosemary Feal, do you detect that difference that Ted is talking about?

Ms. FEAL: To some degree I think what Ted said it correct. The e-mail that you mentioned about learning Polish to read great works of literature has been long one of the great motivations to learn language other than English if your native language is English. To have access to those great bodies of literature, to understand history and culture in the languages themselves gives opportunities that simply don't exist in translation. So in a sense, even though we may not expect to use the languages every day in our work, I think practically everyone who acquires a good degree of competence in a language finds enormous use in their enrichment and also in their interactions.

If you go to the MLA Language Map at, you can see exactly what we've been talking about. The 18 percent of US citizens who--and US residents--who speak a language other than English at home--you can see how they're scattered throughout the entire United States. You can look by ZIP code at the language map to see just where all the speakers of languages other than English are. So even though we might not use the language in our job in a particular part of the United States, if we go to another part, we'll have opportunities not only to study abroad in our lives, but to study at home, to interact at home. And I think those language opportunities that the map shows is a bit of a missing puzzle when we think of languages as only something Americans approach in the classroom.

CONAN: Ted, thanks very much for the call.

TED: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Michael Long, before we let you go, just a couple of quick questions. If you already know another language, is it easier to learn a third, fourth and fifth?

Prof. LONG: We're doing a big project on that at the University of Maryland right now. We're looking at American adults who already know a second language learning third languages, and usually very difficult ones like Arabic, Korean, Russian and Persian. And again, the jury is out on this. There is some research which suggests that it's easier for subsequent language acquisition if you've done a second. There's some studies which don't find that. One generalization from the limited work so far is that if the second language is typologically related--similar structure, similar vocabulary and so on...

CONAN: Spanish, French.

Prof. LONG: Yes, that sort of thing. Then the grammar of the language of the language will be easier, but the phonology and the pragmatics will not. But what's interesting or one of the things that's interesting about this is to know whether that second you learned is helping you learn any subsequent language or just the ones that are in the same family. Is it higher aptitude--in other words, is aptitude something that's partly innate, partly learned and you've just improved your aptitude for any language, or just for the ones that are close.

CONAN: And before we let you go, what's your second language and why?

Prof. LONG: Spanish--because I took it at school and I wasn't really thinking at the time, and then I spent some years in Latin America as a volunteer and so forth.

CONAN: Came in handy after all of that.

Prof. LONG: It did.

CONAN: Yeah. Michael Long, thanks very much for being with us today.

Prof. LONG: Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: Michael Long, professor of second language acquisition and director of the University of Maryland School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. He joined us in Studio 3A. Rosemary Feal is still with us in our bureau in New York, so when we come back from the break, we'll continue taking your calls and e-mails about what's your second language and why. (800) 989-8255. Send us e-mail:

I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following today at NPR News. Food, blankets and tents are finally getting to earthquake victims in Pakistan, but heavy rain and hail has forced the cancellation of some relief flights to the earthquake-stricken region. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan getting assurances that the United States will continue to have access to military bases in that country. Earlier this year, Uzbekistan ordered US troops out of a base that had been used to operate in Afghanistan. You can hear details on these stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, natural gas prices have been steadily rising as a result, we can all expect to pay a lot more to heat our homes this winter, whether it's natural gas or heating oil or electricity. We'll talk about what you can do to make it less painful. Home heating costs tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Right now we're continuing and wrapping up our conversation on what's your second language and why. Our guest is Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association; is with us from our bureau in New York.

And I wanted to read you this e-mail that we got from Arlie(ph)--I think it is--Lomelle(ph). `One area of the United States that's an exception to the rule about second languages,' he writes, `is the intermountain West. In the case of Mormons, second-language learning, a large institutional apparatus called the Missionary Training Center supports this learning and is by some accounts the largest language school in the world. Although the clear motivation for language learning is proselytizing, many Mormon missionaries go to specialize academically in the countries where they were missionaries, and the Mormon presence in foreign language instruction and related cultural fields such as folklore, linguistics and geography is considerable. I learned Hungarian in this manner,' he writes, `and I found Hungarian to be highly useful in my present field of study--folklore--and it never ceases to amaze Hungarians who meet me that I speak Hungarian and that I have no family or heritage connected to Hungary.'

Ms. FEAL: That's a wonderful observation, and I think it's exemplary, because it shows us that while you can learn languages for a very specific function, such as doing your mission work, you can also find uses for them way beyond that particular opportunity. I think it's also a model for all Americans to study languages so that you can interact with others in the world in their tongue and not only in your tongue.

CONAN: Another e-mail, this from Hilda Alvarez in Miami. `I'm a 42-year-old Cuban American living in Miami. I was born in New York City. While my parents worked I was cared for by my maternal grandmother, a Spaniard who lived with us. Since she didn't speak English, I learned Spanish before I learned English. I actually learned English from watching television and from books my bilingual parents read to me. Now living in Miami where Spanish is everywhere, I can't really say that Spanish is my second language. I consider both English and Spanish to be my primary languages. I'm completely fluent in both, and in fact earn a secondary income from translating in both directions.' And I think Hilda is representative of a lot of people in this country who don't think of either of those languages as primary or secondary.

Ms. FEAL: That's right. That would be a fully functional bilingual, and many Americans identify themselves in that way and move seamlessly between the two languages. In fact, code-switch, as we call it, and feel very comfortable speaking in both Spanish and English and very often both at the same time as I do at home. So I think a good lesson here is that we should be encouraging our children to learn the languages that their parents or their caregivers speak and to keep those languages.

Throughout American history, as we know, it was typical, as we heard from one of your callers, to get a rap on the knuckle if you spoke Italian in school or if you reverted to an indigenous language. And we should be encouraging kids to learn their own languages that they've come to the country with, learn English well. Cognitive studies have shown, research studies have shown that cognition is improved with acquiring another language. It also helps in aging. We understand that the aging brain that is bilingual does better, and I hope that gives a lot of us something to look forward to.

CONAN: Throughout the program we've been talking, at least for the most part, about living languages--I guess even Klingon fits in on some definitions. But what about the classics--ancient Latin, ancient Greek?

Ms. FEAL: Those languages are also up pretty remarkably, about 20 percent overall in the period from 1998 to 2002. Some of those languages that have increased dramatically are biblical Hebrew, modern Hebrew, ancient Greek and Latin. I talked to quite a few professors of classical languages who are...

CONAN: `Who are'--you will note now it is quarter of, and we apparently have lost our connection to our bureau...

Ms. FEAL: OK--in everyday life...

CONAN: Oh, wait a minute. There she is.

Ms. FEAL: It might be of interest to students today. And what I hear is the following: There is quite a bit of interest in (technical difficulties)...

CONAN: Go ahead. Rosemary?

Ms. FEAL: I'm here.

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead. We...

Ms. FEAL: I was explaining why these languages might be of interest to students, these classic languages such as Latin and Greek. Part of the reason is a return to studying religious texts in the original languages. Latin, Greek and obviously biblical Hebrew are enormously of interest for scholars, students who want to read texts in original languages. There also seems to be a return to a classic humanistic liberal arts education, and anyone who's over 50 who's listening to this show knows that Latin was always a language that was required in a liberal arts curriculum. So I think a lot of students are recognizing the classical heritage that is our heritage, and connecting to it through study of these languages.

CONAN: Rosemary Feal, thank you very much for being with us, and we apologize for that technical glitch there right at the end.

Ms. FEAL: It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Rosemary Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association and joined us from our bureau in New York.

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