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    Ben Murray first started learning Spanish as a young child on the soccer fields. He continued his Spanish studies in college. courtesy photo
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    Jennifer Zerr Nelson is from Panama and moved to the U.S. when she was eight. courtesy photo

Hello, bonjour, hola - language is a beautiful thing

Without languages, it would be really difficult for people to communicate with each other. But with an estimated 6,909 distinct languages in the world, why is it that in the United States, the only language that most Americans know is English?

Texas, of course, is in the minority here as there is a heavy Hispanic population in the state. According to a U.S. Census count, more than a third of the state’s residents speak another language at home - of which 85 percent speak Spanish.

From 2009 to 2013, the Census Bureau studied those who spoke detailed languages at home and have the ability to speak English for the population of residents five years and older. That study found that 29,484,482 spoke only English at home. It also found that 60,361,574 spoke a language other than English at home. The language most frequently spoken was, again, Spanish.

Meanwhile, in Europe, children enrolled in public schools start learning foreign languages from a very young age. According to a Pew Research article, European teens are required to study multiple languages at school before they are teens. Students typically start learning a foreign language between the ages of six and nine.

When an immigrant moves to a new country often one of the biggest challenges is learning the language of their new home. Jennifer Zerr Nelson was born in Panama and moved to the U.S. when she was eight. Her mother was originally from Columbia and her father was from Texas and was of German descent.

“I grew up multilingual,” Nelson said. “We spoke English and Spanish at home. My first word was in English but my first sentence was in Spanish.”

When Nelson visited her grandmother in Columbia, she spoke Spanish. When she visited her paternal grandmother in Texas, her grandmother would speak English and German.

“She had moved here when she was 13, so she was still fluent in German,” Nelson said. “So it was this dichotomy too.”

Growing up in Panama, Nelson was exposed to many different languages and cultures because of the centralization of the Panama Canal. That inspired her to study languages in college and hoped to be an interpreter for the United Nations.

“I grew up hearing Greek, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and all types of English accents, so that was really enlightening,” Nelson said. “But you had to be fluent in something like eight languages to work for the UN and that was just a lot,” Nelson said.

However, hearing those different languages while growing up shaped her childhood and her desire to learn more about other cultures.

“To me, learning another language was expected,” she said. “If I wanted to be friends with anyone, I had to know a little of their language, and they had to know a little of mine. It was really fun.”

For Marcy Tanter, an interest in Korea and Korean culture led to a Fulbright Scholarship. The Tarleton State University English professor has been teaching American literature at Dongguk University in Seoul since February.

“I became interested in Korean culture after watching Korean dramas on Netflix,” Tanter said. “They are similar to our soap operas but are also somewhat different. After watching a few - with subtitles - I wanted to know more about the people and country.”

Tanter has been able to teach herself to read Korean. She said the alphabet, called Hangeul, is easy to learn. However, she said speaking the language itself is tricky.

“It’s not an easy language because there are many layers of formality and the grammar is complicated,” Tanter said. “I can say a few things but I’m too old to learn it on my own. I need a teacher or an extended visit of a few years to really learn it.”

Tanter advocates for all students to learn a second language, and said that being bilingual can help them find a good job.

“Being bilingual will enhance your job opportunities and will also open your perspective on the world and can help you make new friends,” she said.

Ben Murray, a litigation lawyer with McCool-Smith, said being bilingual helped him out early in his career when translators weren’t always available to him or his clients.

“The court systems do have interpreters, but sometimes there isn’t one on hand or there isn’t money for one and you just need things to get done,” he said.

Murray first started learning Spanish when he was young and playing soccer with predominantly Hispanic teammates. In high school he took Latin, but by the time he went to college, he knew he wanted to become as fluent as possible in Spanish.

“I wanted to leave college bilingual,” he said. “I was determined to learn Spanish, so I took intensive courses and lived abroad for a year in Argentina which really solidified it.”

When he first got to Argentina, every day was exhausting, Murray said, because he had to use every bit of brain power to understand what was being said to him and then speak correctly back. That experience gave him an appreciation for immigrants in a new country.

“For four or five months it was really difficult,” he said. “But after that, it was kind of like riding a bike and using muscle memory.”

Additionally, learning to speak two languages could help stave off dementia, according to a study conducted at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India. The study included 648 seniors who had varying forms of dementia and literacy levels.

Of the 648 participants, 14 percent were illiterate. 391 participants spoke two or more languages. 240 participants were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. 189 had diagnosed vascular dementia and 119 had diagnosed frontotemporal dementia. The remainder of the participants had mixed dementia. After evaluating each participant, researchers found that those who spoke a second language delayed certain types of dementia by an average four and a half years.

Texas currently requires high school students to take a minimum of two years of languages other than English or an approved substitute. According to BISD Communications Coordinator Katelyn Tyler, BISD currently offers Spanish, German and American Sign Language to high school students. Spanish is also offered as an elective for middle school students.


News you can use is a column written by Burleson Star editor Bethann Coldiron, about different topics you may not typically see in a community newspaper.

Burleson Star

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Burleson, TX 76028-0909

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