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Art Lee: Want to learn a second language? No need. . .

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Columns Bemidji,Minnesota 56619
Art Lee: Want to learn a second language? No need. . .
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

The decision to learn a second language depends mainly on two factors: 1.) Need and 2.)Obtainable help, and often the two go together but No. 1 comes first. If there is no need, why bother?


These two factors are normally applied to all new immigrants arriving in America at any year who soon determine the need to learn English even if the availability to pick up that English is not always near, nor handy. But there are and were some immigrants who never saw any need to learn English and could easily dismiss any availability to do so, even when offered the opportunity. And so if they perceived that there is no need to learn English, then why bother? My immigrant grandfather was in this category.

Grandpa Lars Agrim Lee came at age 22 from Norway in 1878 and soon became a farmer whose small farm was located 12 miles outside of Decorah, Iowa. He was still living on that farm when he died in 1943. At the age of 87, and having lived in the United States for 56 years, by the end of his life, he knew maybe 25 words in English. And that was a problem for his family members. For us grandchildren who had traveled regularly to visit his farm, it was near impossible for any communication with Grandpa. That was not a good situation for either of us. It’s tough and sad when you can’t talk to Grandpa. (However, his wife, Grandma Julia, spoke good English.)

Essentially Lars Lee (spelled Li in Norsk)could easily say why bother? Essentially, in his entire life in America, he was always surrounded by people who spoke Norwegian. All his farm neighbors — the Dalens, the Roxvolds, the Kirkebys, the Lovens — were less Norwegian-Americans than Norwegians living in America.

Lars never owned a car; his trips into town — maybe three times a year — were done by horse-and-buggy and the merchants he dealt with spoke Norwegian. Church services were in Norwegian and when services slowly began to be in English, he stopped attending. He read only one newspaper, The Decorah Posten (på Norsk; in Norwegian, of course). Apparently from his point of view, he got along just fine in America; there seemed to be no need on his part to learn English, thank you.

Language aside, at the dinner table Grandpa was fun and actually amazing to watch. Although of little consequence, what I remember most about him — indeed, it remains a stamped memory — is Grandpa Lars always and only eating green peas with his table-knife — and his balancing a half-dozen peas on the flat blade of the knife just before putting it in his mouth. He was so good that he never spilled a single pea. Bite after bite. No spilling. Even by age 80. A sight to behold. Ahhh yes, a special, if different (weird?) memory about one’s Grandpa.

A need to learn English

My wife, Judy, and I have a daughter who married a Norwegian and she and her husband have lived in Grimstad, Norway for the past 21 years. They have two sons who have been taking English in their public schools, starting in first grade and continuing their English-language study in every grade beyond, which in that country ends with grade 13. (Actually some English starts in their pre-school program called Barnahage.) The results, of course, are understandable. This fall our grandson Eirik is in the ninth-grade and the English class he’s taking in Norway is being taught in English. This understanding of a second language is national. Current American tourists to Norway learn quickly that virtually any Norwegian there under age 50 understands English. So it’s hard to get lost there, but it can happen if one gets far enough away in remote mountain villages.

Grandpa Lars came to America about the time when the voyage by sailing-ships took eight weeks but he emigrated on a “modern” steamship and so it took only eight days. Our daughter and her family have been coming to America each summer (destination: Bemidji) since 2000; their airplane flight takes eight hours.

Anyway, these days/years, there are no language problems with the grandkids from Norway. We chatter away at great length with Eirik or his older brother Kristian (age 20). What their grandparents don’t understand are all the modern electronic “apps” devices that they sometimes bring along with them and the strange English words they use to try to explain them to bestemor og bestefar (grandma and grandpa), words like iPads and iPhones and Droids and Tweeting vs. Texting and Blackberries and Smart Phones. (How ’bout Dumb Phones? Nope. Not for them, just us. We’re told that that’s our American ancient “landline phones.” ‘Cause everybody uses cell phones, don’t they?) Their apps-vocabulary seems like “foreign” words but at least they tried to explain electronics to us in English.

The ninth-grade Norwegian boy has picked up one American word he uses continually, a term for a positive appreciation, an accolade for any event or person or thing deserving of praise; that sobriquet is simply “cool.” Yup, this guy or gal or thing or event is really cool. It’s great to be cool. On the streets in Oslo today, are Norwegian teenagers still cool? Yes and no; there it’s spelled “kul.”

All this family stuff leads to a consideration about the future. Years from now, what will these grandkids remember from their multi visits to grandparents in America? Hmmmm, impossible to know now, of course, but maybe it’s time to start practicing the balance required to eat green peas on a knife blade.