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Bilingual Brains

vjp2 at dorsai.org vjp2 at dorsai.org
Thu Mar 18 06:12:58 EST 1999

	I learned to read and write in three languages (English,
Greek, French) in first grade, at age five.  Before that I mostly
spoke only Greek at home. My immigrant parents figured, since their
Greek was at university level, they should teach me what they knew
well, and leave what they knew less well to my school. For my first
eight years, I attended a Greek-American school founded by
Columbia-EdD Helen "Koula" Tassop. Those three languages, I speak
without accent. I studied Greek a total of eight years and French for
a total of eleven. I haven't studied either very much since, but
recently, thanks to the internet and to spell-check software, I have
started improving in Greek for the first time since I stopped studying
it. (In college, I did force myself to read the New Testament in
Koine.) I speak Greek at the university level, read it at high school
level, and write it at grammar school level. Any language I have tried
to learn after adolescence, I have a bad accent in. In Japanese, I
have trouble learning the characters, but I can read the Russian
alphabet pretty easily (I picked it up from oh-so-predictable
billboards touring Bulgaria for a week when I was 14).  German I
mostly learned on my own while an aunt and an older cousin where in
Germany. My French is good enough that I can understand someone
speaking Spanish or Italian slowly, as well. I imagine with all the
translation software available (eg altavista.com let's you translate
your own text or a URL right on the web) language skills could either
improve or decline depending on one's inclination (my calculating
skills actually improved when I got my first calculator because I
picked up certain patterns - but that was also the year I was taking
the SATs). I found a lot of scientific terms (esp med) a lot easier
because of the languages (esp Greek & French) I knew. I also found it
easy to jump between programming languages (except COBOL.. I HATE
COBOL!!) if I had enough code samples instead of textbook theory. But
there were also disadvantages. Being multilingual got me excused from
learning to write effectively (in any language) as early as I should
have; Then again, something else also happened, when teachers or
employers had difficulty understanding what I had to say (or they
disagreed), they conveniently blamed my writing, an easy cop-out,
because it also covered them. I had a colleague whose parents were
Puerto Rican who would start speaking flawless French whenever someone
at work tried to speak to him in Spanish - he was right to do so
because of all the biases he would encounter.  Speak Greek with a
Greek last name and you begin to be seen as a foreigner and doors
begin to shut in your face. Then there is the danger that you begin to
speak a pidgin/creole language when you are away from genuine/current
natives - and that benefits noone - it excludes you from two societies
- both your ancestral culture and your current environment. I have
nothing against students learning additional languages (for me, they
made my mind so much more flexible and adaptible), so long as this
doesn't become a crutch preventing them from learning the language
they need to survive in the work environment - and this is
unfortunately easier said than done - Institutionalise a program and
mission creep makes it expand to things it was never intended because
it is a way to get more funding and to agitate against budget
cuts. Likewise the folks who were totally unbiased when their
self-interest wasn't threatened, but as soon as it was, suddenly, I
was this foreigner (mind you my mom's granpas had actaully been here
as early as 1885) with language problems.

				- = -
Vasos-Peter John Panagiotopoulos II, Columbia'81+, Bioengineer-Financier, NYC
   BachMozart ReaganQuayle EvrytanoKastorian http://WWW.Dorsai.Org/~vjp2
   ---{Nothing herein constitutes advice. Everything fully disclaimed.}---

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