People often ask me whether I am still studying Spanish. (They also ask me if I am still writing for the paper, but that probably wouldn’t be you.) The answer is that I am still studying Spanish every day. And I still use duolingo.com. It is free and by far the best software for language learning that I’ve run across. Puedo hablar un poco y entiendo un poco. Soy viejo.


I am down to less than 10 minutes a day in Spanish, but I am spreading out. I’ve taken up Latin, and Latin is easy. One can know a lot of Latin accidentally simply by virtue of being a pompous ass. Ego sum.


But one day I yielded to temptation. There are quite a few students from India on campus, and many of them speak Hindi as a lingua franca even if they don’t speak it as their native language. Duolingo is free, so I thought, why not give it a go?


Well...


The first five lessons are just learning the alphabet. And I say alphabet, but that isn’t exactly right. It is sort of halfway between an alphabet and a syllabary. In a syllabary, the letters don’t represent single vowels or consonants but syllables. The Hindi alphabet (which is called devanagari, by the way) has symbols for syllables that are modified by ‘vowel marks.’


All of that aside, the alphabet is beautiful. It looks like tiny creatures hanging from a clothes line. When you start, you look at the word and mutter, “What The HELL?” to yourself. It is utterly different, utterly alien.


But I am a math guy, and I love symbols, so having to learn a different alphabet was something of an attraction for me. There is also some sort of thrill that comes from learning about something that was utterly unknown to you before. Do any of you experience that?


We are all wired-up differently. Some of you like to ride motorcycles; and while I respect that and even admire it, it is not an activity I would like to take part in myself. I do believe, however, there are certain activities that those of us who are educators should encourage in our students because they build up mental muscles that we can make great use of later.


There was a time when learning Latin was required of students for just that reason. It taught discipline. It taught how to learn a system of rules. It taught a grammar different from the one you learned while crawling around at your mother’s feet. It taught the roots of many English (and Spanish and French and Italian) words.


Am I saying that everybody should learn Latin? Oh, hell no. That ship has sailed. But don’t tell me it was useless.


I got to have lunch a few weeks ago when some of our potential football recruits and their parents. As an academic let me say that visiting and answering the questions of potential students and their parents is one of the best things ever. If they really care about the answers, that is.


One of the students and his dad were talking about some of the weight training the young man had done. I saw an opportunity.


“You know,” I said, “some athletes have been among my best students. They take that ability to carve out a little time for weight-training, running, whatever, and take one more step to carving out the time every day for study. When they make that step, they find out they can learn anything.”


They said they’d never thought about it that way before. I hope the boy chooses to come here; the young man seemed very bright.


Discipline comes from the Latin word discipulus which translates as student. Learning discipline is transferable in the widest possible way.


— Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook.