Apologia Pro Su Lingua


Long ago in Spanish class we all had to choose two countries and write reports on them. Some chose Mexico – an important and near country. Spain and its then recent conversion from dictatorship to monarchy was popular.

I chose Wales and Switzerland.

Not until years later did I realize I may have appeared a jerk. I now wonder and for a long time have wondered what Mr. Stratton, our teacher, thought of my choice. Nor could I, at the time, have expressed my thoughts well. So do I now explain myself.

There were calculating devices for years before Alan Turing.  They could do one or two things. But a Turing machine could solve ANY problem. Yes, theory was well ahead of practice and still is. In English I could think about any subject. [Sapir and Whorf show the problems with that, but in theory….] It would appear matronizing to Spanish or any other language to limit it to just talking about itself. Would I really know Spanish if I could not use it to discuss the tragedy that is Ukraine? Could I respect a language that only can discuss it’s own cuisine and culture. Or must I idolize it so all I wish to talk about are tapas and Falangistas? A language should be a Universal Thinking Machine.

It seems infantilizing to study a language and then hobble it so. I still remember outraging my class when we were playing Password for vocabulary drill. We had to make the other side understand the word ‘truck.’ Lorry for the British. My prompt was diesel. Everyone else in the class said I was cheating. Mr. Stratton, a wise man, overruled them. Diesel, with the proper pronunciation, is the Spanish word for Diesel. After all it is the English word but started out in German.

I was not a very good student of Spanish, but an odd thing happened: After a few years some unconscious process made it work better in my brain The peculiar ‘D’ that is somewhere close to a theta became easier. Of course, I still am afraid to say the word for ‘comb.’ I have even had a couple of dreams in Spanish. Oddly, I awaken from them sweating. Speaking a foreign language in one’s dreams is hard.

And my approach paid well. Once I left a Chinese restaurant and was home before I realized I had not paid. By the time I got back in the middle of the afternoon the only fellow who was there could not speak a word of English. I had at the time, perhaps, two words in Mandarin. Always whimsical, I tried Spanish. [ I said I was something like a jerk.]

We both spoke Spanish. We had a fascinating conversation. Not easy though. I was working hard to even remember any of my Spanish.

It turned out that he had never imagined coming to America. He studied South America in university and skedaddled when the Tienanmen Square protests devolved into a minor bloodbath. Could I have even spoken to him, had I never learned the Spanish word for China? Or heaven? Or military tank?

Oh, a caveat. I once met a very nice Absaroka lady named Janet Littlelight. She ran a small art gallery in Downtown Billings. I thought her Spanish perfect. She thought mine the best she ever heard.

We knew this could not be true. It seems that in a different forum, her Spanish instructor was also John Stratton. We realized that we hadn’t so much learned Spanish as Spanish a la Stratton. Fortunately, Stratton Spanish is not too dissimilar to the Platonic ideal. And there are many visions of any Platonic Ideal.

Never depend on a single teacher, however good.


One comment on “Apologia Pro Su Lingua

  1. Shirley Olson says:

    Interesting, David! I do hear from John Stratton at Christmas but don’t have an email for him.
    My own Spanish instruction stopped with high school in OKCity in 1950 so you can imagine I am not speaking it to anyone! :) I’ll see if I can get email for you – he would love to hear he is remembered (as do all we ancient teachers. :( )

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