Confessions in June 2010

Updated June 26, 2010

June 26, 2010 - Waiting for the pieces to come together

There's an old joke: A young man approaches an older gentleman and says, "Excuse me, sir, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The old man answers, "Practice, my boy. Practice."

It's a funny story, but there's more to it than that. I was recently reading about what separates concert soloists from members of orchestras from music teachers. What they found is that, unsurprisingly, the members of orchestras and concert soloists practiced a lot more than music teachers. But they found something else: The concert soloists, the crème de la crème, didn't practice much more than the members of the orchestra. But they practiced multiple times a day in shorter bursts. It wasn't something they fit in. It was a regular part of life, like going to the drugstore or picking up some lunch. There might be a couple lessons for language learners here.

For language geeks, it's pretty much common knowledge that you're better off studying half an hour a day than four hours on Saturday. And Assimil fans know that it's better to study a little bit in the morning and the evening, rather than in one chunk. But when we make plans for how we're going to learn a language, we sometimes lose sight of this as the practical realities of the calendar set in. And so we forget to schedule the most crucial part of our learning: the break that gives us time to let things sink in. We're more like the music teacher or the orchestra member, cramming in our practice when we can. Depending on how much we cram in, we can be okay or quite good. But we can't make the leap to great until, like the virtuoso with those multiple sessions, our language study becomes part of how we live, not something we do.

When you take up the study of a language, if you stick with it you will learn, sooner or later. You will wind up with enough pieces of the puzzle that suddenly the picture starts to become clearer. But that said, language acquisition is not a conscious task. Langauge learning, is, of course, a conscious task. It's how you get the language stuff into your head. But you don't conjugate verbs correctly or remember to use the subjunctive because you have learned to do so. It comes when you have internalized the pattern. That internalization comes from following the pattern consciously, then resting so that your unconscious can figure out what you've done. And then you need to come back and let the unconscious try out what it's learned.

While the average self-teacher won't have time to do what the virtuoso does, we can still try to follow that pattern: 1) practice the pattern, 2) give the unconscious time to figure it out, 3) try it out. Rather than studying for half an hour or an hour a night (and not at all on the nights you're tired), try skimming a lesson first thing in the morning, rereading it at lunch and then actually doing the lesson in the evening. Or look for some other permutation that fits into your calendar. Just remember, what separates the very good from the great is not how much they do, but that they fit it into their lives so that they'll have time not only to learn but also to let the learning sink in.

June 19, 2010 - Feeling the meaning of foreign literature

A poster at how-to-learn-any-language notes that while he understands French literature, it just doesn't evoke feelings in him/her the way that English does. He/she wonders if others feel the same distance between themselves and the true feeling or meaning of writing in other languages.

If we actually had to associate direct feeling or understanding to every word we used (excepting the "the"s, "and"s, etc, of course), we would never get around to speaking our own language, never mind another. Language is a complex of associations and you don't need to have been to Auschwitz to tremble at the word holocaust, nor to have drunk a cold Coke on a hot day to get the gist of refreshing.

To get a sense of how this really works, it's helpful to remember this bit:

Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal. - TS Eliot

If something strikes you when you're reading, that clever turn of phrase or odd allusion probably is from Shakespeare, or the King James Bible if you're reading English. At the least, it's from Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw, or maybe T.S. Eliot. If you read a lot, you catch the associations. If not, you still get exposure to the language as used well because cliches endure for a reason. All that said, this shades of meaning stuff is not about pure life experience; it's about life as experienced through language. Nobody ever says, "Oh look, the sky is so azure today!" But if you're reading a poem, the odds are about 4-1 that the sky is azure, and not boring old blue. And when you read this, you sigh because you know the sky is just that shade of blue that the poets are always going on about. Whatever that is. The point is, our response to literature is built upon a combination of our knowledge of the world and our knowledge of other literature. The words don't have meaning only when we have lived them.

It works in Italian. Take our buddy Cavalcanti In un boschetto, trova' pasturella... - In a little wood, I found a shepherdess... It's not as though amorous young men are forever running across simple peasant girls in need of some divertissement from tending their sheep, but we all get the game. My first strong association with the Italian words pasturella and boschetto are this poem. As it happens, it's from my first reading of this poem that I learned them. And to this day, the word pasturella has an air of idyllic lechery for me, while boschetto evoks both promise and peril (Who will we find? A shepherdess, lovelier than the stars and with golden curls? The big bad wolf?). Note that I did not need to live in Italy, to hear people talking about pasturelle and boschetti or indeed to have any real life experience at all with the subject at hand through the medium of Italian to form my associations. All I needed was to hop into a poem and go along for the ride.

If you're reading foreign literature and you're not getting anything out of it, it doesn't mean that you need more sensitivity and perception, or better training. It means you're reading the wrong thing. It never ceases to amaze me how many people stumble through works in a foreign language that they'd never trouble themselves to read in translation. The reading is going to be twice as hard because both the language and the content are going to frustrate you, and with time you'll realize that the real reason you're not feeling anything isn't the words, it's that you wouldn't feel anything even if you understood it perfectly. If you really want to read foreign literature, find stuff that you would read in English if that's what it was written in. Then keep reading until you've read enough that if you really had to write a book yourself, you'd know which bits of the language you'd want to steal. (Hint: "It was a dark and stormy night" may be a bit overused.)

June 12, 2010 - Occitan

In my last post, I mentioned (but with the incorrect URL, oops) As I mentioned, it's probably getting fewer visits than sites for the Avatar language Nav'i. I'd like to add that that's a shame. There's not as much there as I would like, but there's a fair amount, all the same, including a verb conjugator, a grammar and a set of lessons. Sadly, the Occitan course only includes 9 lessons. It's sad to get to the end of dialog nine:

Professeur: Tornaràs per la desena leiçon? Maidon: Solide.
and know that if she did, the link to it and future lessons are missing.

I haven't yet worked through all the lessons. I've been putting on lesson one, and listening to as many lessons as play before I realize that 1) my lunch break is over, 2) the bus is at my stop or 3) it's time for dinner. This usually brings me to lesson 5 or 6. But I made it through lesson once, and it was jarring for the iPod to go quiet since normally the conversation just keeps going.

The audio lessons are charming, with one drawback (besides rough sound quality). They involve an older teacher who is giving Occitan lessons to a young girl. This means that much of the dialog involves him giving her the Occitan word for a French word she's dropped in. Yet all the phrases are translated into French. It might have been better if they'd only translated the phrases that didn't already involve translating. That said, it's free, and it's not a bad way to pick up a little Occitan. If you want to learn a little vocabulary and a few basic structures, give it a look.

June 7, 2010 - Regional Languages

Over at HTLAL, I recently came across a thread on Occitan. This set me to thinking about both Occitan and my favorite regional language in France, Breton. These languages are, alas, dying. Yet when I look at preservation efforts, I wonder how I'd feel were I from Brittany or Southern France and at one remove from the language of Paris that rules the country. It's a tough call knowing what to do for these languages. It's not as though we can create entities of Occitania and Brittany at this late date whose political, never mind economic, power will be sufficient to sustain the languages, especially in Brittany where a fair share of the eastern part never really did speak Breton. (They spoke Gallo, an independent offshoot of Latin quite different from French that's dying even faster than Breton.)

While it may be hard to keep the languages alive as primary means of communication, however, that doesn't mean they have to be lost. It's a question of how attached people are to them, and to the culture they represent. Many Jews know enough Hebrew to participate in the rites, even if they're not conversant. Many Muslims know enough Arabic to read scripture, though they, too, may not speak any modern dialect conversationally. Sanskritists are forever assuring that there's a resurgence in interest in the tongue. And many among the learned have hung onto some Greek or Latin.

I wonder if the true key to saving languages like these rests in conversational programs. It may be that what we truly need to save are the cultural jewels - the poetry of the Troubadors, or the retelling of tales about Merlin and Arthur. To go into a shop and have someone say "Demat deoc'h" or "Adieussatz" (spelling?) is charming. But to see a moving story told or poem recited by someone who knows what is being said - that is real inspiration to get to know the language and the culture.

In recent years, there's been a resurgence of interest in Latin as a tool for getting in touch with deeper roots of our civilization. Maybe, what Breton and Occitan need is not language classes that introduce the culture, but a focus on the treasures of the culture that just can't be fully appreciated without the language. After all, to learn to speak a dying language to which you have no personal connection - this requires a true language nerd. But to learn to talk like Jaufré de Rudel or Merlin the magician... Okay, it still takes a nerd, but of a different kind. But I'll bet that gets more visitors than And if you're trying to find a Klingon speaker or a Breton speaker, the first is probably easier here in the U.S. So, whether it's "Talk like Merlin Day" or some other gimmick, if we're serious about saving dying regional languages, we should be looking harder for ways to evoke the magic of the civilizations that produced them.