‘Das ist nicht German’

We read often about the disappearances of languages. Bill Bryson, the author of “The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way,” estimates that currently, there are 2,700 languages; throughout history, many have died; perhaps there have been more language deaths than there are currently extant languages.

For years, society has feared that when children don’t pick up the language of their grandparents, the native tongue begins to die. What happens, then, to Indian tribes, for example, whose half a thousand residents speak the language, but the youngsters don’t?

I became aware of the multiplicity of tongues earlier this month during Pentecost, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ. The scripture for that day describes disciples suddenly speaking different languages after the visit from the Holy Spirit, and being able the preach and spread the gospel around the world.

The scripture reading for that day was multi-faceted: Gail Malley read passages in the Book of Acts II in Arabic; Murl Baker read it in French; Rudy Laumbach read it in Spanish; Jackson, a Cameroonian, rendered it in an African tongue, Randy Campbell did the reading in English; and I did the honors in German.

My part wasn’t easy. When my oldest son, who has lived overseas for eight years, heard of my part of the service, he wrote, “I expect that when you read, someone with the last name Reinhart will stand up and say, ‘Das ist nicht Deutsch.’ (That’s not proper German).” And I suspect there would have been some truth to that. Yes, I studied German back in the ‘70s under Jose Pablo Garcia and Jean Johnson, but one forgets a lot in 40 years.

Language will certainly be on my mind next week when we join the Danish family, Stanley Adam and his wife and daughters, and Ben, our youngest, and his wife on a European trip to the Czech Republic and to Austria. This is my fear: I have absolutely no knowledge of how some European languages sound. Even Danish, a language which our New Mexico-born son has been studying, bears virtually no resemblance to the “Romance” languages, Latin-based, which give some clue as to their vocabulary, gender, structure and syntax.

For example, in a freshman composition course at Highlands University, years ago, the assignment had been to read passages from Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us.” One student knitted her brow when we came across three troublesome words: “terrestrial,” “arboreal” and “aquatic.” Prodding the class to provide definitions for these words, I got blank expressions.

“Come on, you sillies!” I remember saying. Then I took them through similar words that were certainly part of the students’ ken, as most students at the time spoke some Spanish. It turned out that the words “earth,” “trees” and “water” suddenly came easily to them. And I didn’t need to spoon-feed the class or define the words for them. They all seemed familiar with tierra, arboles and agua.

For languages like Portuguese, French and Spanish, there are many cognates and similar-appearing words at which people can take a stab.

But what about the Czech language? Is there anything that even vaguely resembles some of the words we’re familiar with? But not to worry, as millions and millions of people everywhere can communicate in English, the second language of most. In Copenhagen, we’ve been impressed by Danes’ ability to give us precise directions when we’re lost — which has been known to happen. We hope that residents of our first destination, Prague, speak good English.

In a very recent column I mentioned my attempt to dazzle the French and Germans with my command of their language. Their reply: “Please speak English.”

• • •

Have you noticed how the Susana Martinez campaign has begun airing frequent hard-hitting TV ads against her November General Election opponent, Attorney General Gary King? The commercials I’ve seen really seem to sting, disparaging King’s performance as “the worst attorney general in history.” At the same time, commercials touting the qualifications of Martinez, herself, appear regularly.

The pro-Martinez ads invariably show her having just finished reading a book to young ones. One would get the impression that our governor spends most of her time in elementary classrooms. And let’s not forget that Martinez hopes to get serious about levels of reading. Simply, Martinez explains, if a third-grader can’t read at the third-grade level that child should be retained.

I realize the issue is complex. Some argue that the psychological damage wrought by retention is obvious. Others say kids need an extra year to mature and grasp reading skills.

When I was in grade school, retention for a full year was rare, but nevertheless a reality. My recollection was that those who were retained received no specific supplementary instruction other than going over the same instruction one more time.

• • •

Considering the amount of time the governor spends in elementary classrooms reading to kids, maybe it’s time for her to start drawing substitute-teacher wages.

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