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Comprende comprenez?

Excitement about foreign languages inspires Columbia adults to triumph over rusty skills.
Thursday, April 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:20 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

On a Thursday evening at Rock Bridge High School, a group of adults were back in school to learn something they were either rusty at or had never really tried before — the Spanish language.

The students in Mariana Barrenechea-Carver’s beginning Spanish class are adults from different backgrounds and careers and have varying levels of Spanish-speaking experience.

Some students are trying out the language for the first time.

Shandra Gregg, an employee at Bank of America, is taking the class with two other co-workers and hopes to be able to communicate better with her customers.

Others are trying to reverse the use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon.

Some use class as refresher course

Katy Bowman and Sara Seymour are taking the class to refresh their memories. Bowman is brushing up her skills so she can communicate with her sister, a Spanish major at MU, and her co-workers. Bowman took three years of Spanish in high school, but because she didn’t have anyone to talk to, she forgot most of it.

“When you don’t have anyone to talk to, you forget, and then I was also afraid to talk to native speakers for fear of offending them if I said the wrong word,” Bowman said.

Seymour had similar feelings. She, too, took classes in middle school and high school.

“It’s good to have a refresher in the language,” Seymour said.

In a time when Hispanics are now the largest minority group, many adults are trying to learn a foreign language or are resurrecting skills from years ago to attain a common goal: Learning to communicate more effectively in an increasingly diverse society. Taking a class with a native or fluent speaker, such as Argentina native Barrenechea-Carver, helps provide the proper learning environment for students.

“We know that there are cognitive mind structures already in place in the brain, and in order to acquire language it must be experienced either by hearing it or signing for the deaf,” said Kelly Maynard, a visiting professor of linguistics at MU.

Some students struggling with second language

Some students, however, are finding that repeating the sounds and learning the language aren’t so easy. Marilyn Moore needs to see the word to understand the pronunciation, a need that makes verbal skills difficult to master.

“I never took a foreign language, and it’s difficult for me because my language capacity has been long-gone,” Moore said.

Learning a language is more difficult later in life because of differences in the adult brain structure.

According to Language Stars, a foreign language program for children, humans are able to learn languages, even their native language, best when young because as people age, they lose the ability to hear and produce new sounds, which is what can give non-native speech a foreign accent.

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“You learn your first language by the age of 5, and as you age, your brain becomes more frozen due to physiological changes in your brain, and if you haven’t learned a language by the end of your childhood, you won’t be truly fluent,” Maynard said.

This decreased capacity can make difficult not only the language but also the learning process. Bowman agrees.

“It’s so frustrating when you know what you want to say but can’t figure out how to say it,” she said.

Adults capable of learning another language

Many adults tend to think they are just incapable of learning another language, but that’s not the case, said Carol Lazzaro-Weis, chair of the MU Department of Romance Languages. It’s just that adults learn differently, Lazzaro-Weis said, and adults are more dependent on the written word.

“Adults are hesitant to speak, repeat and imitate because they’ve already mastered the reading and writing, and when learning, tend to be better at the syntax of the language,” Lazzaro-Weis said. “Though you can’t generalize, because there are some adults who have a good ear and will be able to pick it up.”

For the students in Barrenechea-Carver’s class, the excitement of learning a new language keeps them going in spite of the challenges.

“This group of students is really eager to learn the language,” Barrenechea-Carver said. “The class ends at 9 p.m., and many nights it’ll be 9:15 and they’re still ready to keep going.”


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