A leap of language

Daunted by his Spanish homework, Anton moans with the belief that it’s a form of punishment.

There is nothing more heart-rending than a child in pain. This is the thought that occurs to me as I watch my 15-year-old son grapple with his Spanish homework. I can sense his agony from the next room over as he sits at the kitchen table, contorting his body as if trying to escape the clutches of an octopus.

I can understand Anton's pain, but I cannot identify with it. I was first exposed to Spanish at the tender age of 14, as a high school freshman. It was love at the roll of the first "r." I got hooked on the sound of Spanish, the cultures it represented, the lovely rhythms of its verb endings. I still recall my teacher, Mr. Goldrick, standing in front of the room, snapping his fingers and leading us in a conjugative chorus of hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos, habláis, hablan ... over and over. I rose to the challenge, and the deeper I got into the language, the sweeter was the experience.

But poor Anton! His desire to learn a foreign language is microscopic. The closest he ever came to an interest in language was the pig Latin spouted by The Three Stooges. Just recently I urged him to catch up on his Spanish homework. His response: a clearly enunciated "Oh-nay."

Be that as it may, I persist in encouraging him. Sitting next to him at the kitchen table as he huffs and puffs over irregular command forms, his anxiety radiates like heat from a stove. "I can't do it," he moans, and it's clear that he has erected a Masada of resistance to learning Spanish. And so I suggest that he study in 10-minute microbursts, pausing for a snack or some shots at the basketball hoop out back. This does the trick. After his respite, Anton returns to his chair and begins to bore away again.

As a huge proponent of foreign-language learning in the schools – the earlier the better – it's difficult for me to admit this, but by the age of 14 or 15 the foreign-language "window" may be closed for many kids. When confronted, for the first time, with the intricacies of French pronunciation, or the "der, die, das" nightmare of German grammar, the American teenager coerced into taking a foreign language can be forgiven for throwing up his hands and asking, "Why?" – followed by the mustering of all of his troops to ward off an invasive force that promises only misery, bitterly frustrating homework, and a creeping belief that he is being punished for some unidentified misdemeanor.

But, as I said, I persist, and in a multitude of ways. I have sat up with my son, hovering with my hand on his shoulder while he does his past tense exercises. I have invited native speakers for dinner, hoping Anton would acquire some fragments of Spanish by osmosis. I have tried labeling all the useful items in the house: mesa (table), silla (chair), servicio (toilet), escoba (broom). I've even tried speaking to him in Spanish during breakfast: "¿Anton, quieres leche?" (Do you want milk?) To which he growled, "Yeah, give it to me."

If we get through this year, there will be no more Spanish for my son. He has forsworn it with all the conviction of the man who eschews sword swallowing. But we will survive, and after Spanish has passed, I anticipate a return to the more manageable concerns of algebra, history, and art.

Or maybe not. Just yesterday Anton came home from school bouncing on his toes. "We set up our schedules for next year," he exulted. "I got everything I wanted. Including a foreign language."

That stopped me cold. "You mean," I gulped, "you're going to take Spanish 3?"

Anton wrinkled his nose. "No," he said, swiping the air as if erasing the thought.

"What then?" I asked.

Throwing his arms wide, he announced, "Chinese!"

I wanted to say something, but I was ... I was.... What is the Spanish word for "speechless"?

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