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The language of the future

MOSCOW, Russia

There we were, my husband and I with a small street map in our hands trying to find the famed Cafe Pushkin, named for Russia's great 19th century poet, for an anniversary dinner. We had navigated the subway and emerged at a central plaza with streets heading away in all directions. We were close. I knew it. But I had no idea how to hold the map. Which way was north? Heavy traffic choked the surrounding roads and it seemed every building was under renovation and devoid of street signs. After trudging along in our dressy clothes this way and that only to discover that we'd gone the wrong way, the time had come to ask for help.

Finding an English speaker in Russia was at one time an unlikely stroke of luck. English was frowned upon as capitalist. Today, it's a different story. Our day guide in Moscow, Natalia Mukhamedova, told us if we get lost look for someone under 25. Chances are they speak English.

It was true. A young woman I randomly stopped understood English well enough to appreciate our predicament and help me orient the map. We found the restaurant and had a sumptuous meal in Cafe Pushkin's elaborately decorated, aristocratic surroundings. Its heavenly red caviar, sour cream and buckwheat blini or pancakes, is the only Russian food I fantasized about smuggling back home.

Mukhamedova said that in today's competitive economy foreign language knowledge is essential. Russian employers ask job seekers what foreign languages other than English they know —- English is presumed.

In Europe, the young's facility with languages is apparent everywhere we went. It seems the entire population of young people in Finland speak English so flawlessly that you'd swear they spent their formative years at Phillips Exeter. Even in Estonia, when my husband and I had trouble understanding a bus driver, a young man with a solid command of English asked if he could help. One of our guides during our multination trip who spoke fluent Hungarian, English, Russian and Finnish said her language teacher offered this counsel: It gets easy after the third language.

This always happens when I travel internationally: multiple languages leap from the tongues of polyglot people all around me, while I struggle to commit to memory a few words and phrases in the local language. About the best I could do in Russia was to memorize the Cyrillic alphabet so at least I could sound out subway stops, and road and restaurant signs. It turns out there are some helpful English cognates in Russian, including "cafe," "menu" and most importantly "toilet."

America's education system has a raft of problems but the one that never fails to embarrass me is our lack of foreign language skills. I wasn't offered a foreign language class within the New York public school system until high school and by that time my brain had closed itself off to the possibility of easy fluency.

I tried again a few years ago, taking Spanish classes at night, and was defeated by the time, energy and money it took to continue beyond the most elementary level. New York's most renowned Spanish student, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, learned recently with the help of a personal tutor. Even then it took him seven years of study before he was able to respond to Spanish-speaking reporters in Spanish.

We all know that language exposure in high school and beyond is too late. Foreign languages are best acquired young. And while some of the nation's elementary schools do offer second and third language options, they are the rare exception.

This is crazy. Knowing foreign languages opens doors to the wider world and brings peoples closer. America is duly proud of its multicultural society and yet we can't speak to people who don't speak English.

Parents should be making languages an educational priority. Forget Little League practice, how about an afternoon brushing up that Mandarin. One day, little Johnny will thank you for it.

• • •

I need to correct last week's column. Obviously I misheard what my guide in St. Petersburg, Russia said about the living space allotted to each person by Soviet planners. The correct figure is 5 square meters, or nearly 54 square feet, not 65 square meters as I reported. Also, the column inaccurately said that 65 square meters is about 200 square feet when it is nearly 700 square feet. Thank you to all the metric-literate readers who pointed this out and sorry for the errors.

The language of the future 09/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 11, 2010 8:56pm]

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