Confessions in July 2010

Updated July 31, 2010

July 31, 2010 - Reading the Paradiso with the Hollanders

After reading Borges' comments on the Commedia Divina, I went out and picked up the Paradiso with Italian text and translation and commentary by Robert and Jean Hollander. Unlike the Inferno, I've been reading a little more systematically, following Borges' procedure of working tercet by tercet before undertaking the whole Canto. The first thing I've observed is how much my Italian has faded as Spanish has taken a more prominent role in everyday life. The second thing I've noticed, though, is how quickly it comes back, or, rather, how quickly it feels as though it's coming back.

The Paradiso is a little harder to stumble through than the Inferno, but I think that's in large measure because in the Inferno, Dante himself starts out stumbling. In the the Paradiso he is soaring. It's naturally harder to keep up. But the power is still there. Dante's wonder is palpable and it's hard not to feel some measure of delight in it. But I haven't found the words for it.

Looking at Dante's experience, I keep coming back to Tennyson's "Ulysses," modeled after the prideful Ulysses that Dante himself popularized:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought
But this is exactly backwards - going beyond human limits, "transhumanation," is not something pursued and achieved by "men who strove with gods," but granted to those whom God has blessed. Here's Dante:
Transumanar significar per verba
non si poria; però l'essemplo basti
a cui esperïenza grazia serba.
To soar beyond the human cannot be described
in words. Let the example be enough to one
for whom grace holds this experience in store

(Hollander translation)
Turning from Dante, though, there's the secondary consideration for readers of this blog: Is this the way to learn Italian? I think the key to that lies in Borges' comment that the only Italian he knows is that which Dante and Ariosto taught him. This is probably not the Italian you're going to find spoken in Rome today, or even Tuscany. Rather, it is a bridge between Latin and modern Italian, and a bridge between the classical and the modern. If you have some Italian and wish to experience a work of beauty, I recommend Dante with the Hollanders as your guide. If you wish to speak Italian, there are better ways.

July 24, 2010 - Enjoyment of Neighboring Languages: Another Perspective

The other day, I wrote about just how much you could really get out of playing with a language similar to one you already know without having to go to the trouble of just out and out learning it. I noted how in switching languages, you needed a shift in mindset so that you'd be in tune with the culture and context that produced it. The question is, what kind of shift in mindset do you need? And how do you get it? Would reading the same book over and over because you love it do the trick? Well, yes and no.

Here's Jorge Luis Borges, talking about his first experience of the Divine Comedy in Italian:

En una página estaba el texto italiano y en la otra el texto en inglés, vertido literalmente. Imaginé este modus operandi: leía primero un versículo, un terceto, en prosa inglesa; luego leía el mismo versículo, el mismo terceto, en italiano; iba siguiendo así hasta llegar al fin del canto. Luego leía todo el canto en inglés y luego en italiano... / One on page was the Italian text, and on the other the text in English, translated literally. Imagine this modus operandi: I first read a verse, a tercet, in English prose; then I read the same verse, the same tercet, in Italian; I did this until the end of the Canto. Then I read the whole Canto in English and then in Italian...
Borges goes on to discuss the imperfection of the English translation - or any translation - of Dante, and how he turned more and more from the English, which he knew, to the Italian, which he didn't, but which he could decipher because of its relationship to Spanish.

Borges offers a hopeful model for appreciating literature in a neighboring language, at least if you are impossibly curious, incredibly patient and astonishingly brilliant, all of which Borges was. But can you learn a language this way? Borges confides in us:

He leído muchas veces la Comedia. La verdad es que no sé Italiano, no sé otro italiano que el que me enseñó Dante y de que me enseño, después, Ariosto cuando leí el Furioso.... / The truth is I don't know Italian, I know no other Italian than that which Dante taught me , and that which, later, Ariosto taught me when I read Orlando Furioso...
When we approach a new language, we approach a new world. The world of Dante might just be powerful enough to pull you in, even without proper study, even if you can only guess spottily enough at it to get the gist the first time through. Maybe. I remember, nearly twenty years ago, popping open Mandelbaum's facing translation. Lacking Borges' patience, I only made it through the first Canto in Italian. But to this day when Italian is mentioned, my first thoughts are not "Buongiorno" or "Fa caldo oggi" but
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.
Ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura... (From there the memory falters...)
On the other hand, if you've heard my spoken Italian, you know this is not necessarily a good thing!

As a side note, while my first facing text experience of Dante was Mandelbaum, if you're interested in reading the Italian with an English crutch, I would recommend Hollander's edition, both for the more literal translation and for its cleaner formatting, which will make reading in an unfamiliar language less tiring.

Finally, today, a quote from later in Borges' essay, simply because I found it charming:

No creo que Dante fuera un visionario. Una visión es breve. Es imposible una visión tan larga como la de la Comedia. / I don't believe that Dante was a visionary. A vision is brief. A vision as vast as the Divine Comedy isn't possible.
(Borges citations are taken from La Divina Comedia in Siete Noches; (stilted) translations are my own.)

July 18, 2010 - Are you teaching yourself? Or teaching to a syllabus?

At, s_allard writes about the frustration of helping a friend with French exercises, only to discover that the exercises covered material that was a) obscure and b) way above the student's capabilities:

But the other thing that really struck me was that the student was making very basic mistakes that should not have been occurring at this stage. It seemed to me that if the fundamentals are not mastered, then the study of rather fine grammatical pointers are a waste in time.

The whole thing seemed so inefficient, And frustrating for the student. After all this study, this person could hardly speak the language in an environment where the language is everywhere. The tendency is to blame the student because, if the results are poor, it must be because the student is stupid. I totally disagree, of course. I don't want to tell these language teachers how to do their job, but I am not impressed by the results. Doesn't anybody have any similar experiences?
The problem here is quite simple: Most language programs are not geared to the students. They're geared to a syllabus. The reason for this is evident: When someone signs up for a class, the first thing they want to know is "How much am I going to learn?" Or the university or public school has an expectation set by the state, or the accrediting board, or whatever. And so when a teacher walks into the classroom, the object he or she has in mind is not how much the students can learn, but how many chapters need to be covered per session to get to the end of the syllabus. And so the mindless push forward begins. Two years later, the student still can't speak. But his or her courses have covered the passé simple, the imperfect subjunctive and more, and everyone is impressed at how thorough they are!

Here's the funny thing: People teaching themselves know from experience that this doesn't work, but it's all they know so they do the same thing. It starts in the bookstore: They read the book description, the number of words they'll supposedly learn, etc, and they walk out with visions of fluency in two weeks. What they don't do, often enough, is to walk the book over to the café, do a chapter over an espresso or a mocha (soy, thank you) and see if they feel that this is a book they can learn from. On re-reading the introduction, once home, the student discovers that this course requires an hour per day, and so the planner comes out and once again the visions of some level of fluency in three weeks, six weeks or six months unfold.

At a later point, the student will read that you need to know, say, 3,500 words, for everyday communication. So he or she calculates how many words per day you need to learn to get to that 3,500 in six months, and with visions of conversational proficiency the production of paper or electronic flashcards at X per day begins. And on, and on.

What's funniest of all, of course, is people who take private courses and want to learn X, as opposed to learning as much as they can as well as they can in the time they have. How many people's tutors don't work out because three sessions didn't leave feeling like they were burgeoning native-proficient speakers?

When you're teaching yourself, you face a lot of challenges: You have to teach yourself and, let's face it, you may not be the most gifted teacher out there. You don't have as much feedback as you might want as to whether what you're learning and understanding is, in fact, the way the language works. Finally, your time and finances are likely limited, else you'd be sitting in a course watching a teacher cover X amount of material in six weeks - instead of covering what you can actually learn. This last thing, though, is the one area you can do something about!

If you're teaching yourself, use the texbook layout and recommended study plans as a guide, not something you have to stick to. Add vocabulary at a pace where this week's flashcards stick and last week's flashcards don't seem like a distant memory, you've added so many words since then. If you feel like taking a detour to learn some vocabulary not in the lessons, check a dictionary and make a few flashcards, but don't feel like you need to budget an extra twenty minutes of study so you get through the whole textbook lesson.

In short, if you're teaching yourself, take your time, enjoy the ride, and focus on how much you can learn to use comfortably, not how many pages you can cover or how many words you need to learn this week to make up for the twenty you missed last week in your quest to acquire a basic vocabulary in six months. Are you doing this for the textbook, the CDs, the method or some chart you made? Or are you doing it for you? If you're teaching yourself, make sure your teacher's number one concern is what your student is getting out of it. Your experience will be more useful, and more enjoyable, in the long run.

July 11, 2010 - Pretty good resources for Dari and Uyghur

When you're learning a language, sometimes you want the best, best organized, most carefully produced resources available. But what if you're just curious, in search of a little knowledge and a little fun? There may be other options out there, on blogs, on podcasts (not the pro ones), on youtube.

Dari on Youtube

I recently stumbled across a Dari course on Youtube by someone called yasmine040. You can find it here. It is not as slick as Pimsleur, not as organized as Accent on Afghanistan... but it's more enjoyable. It's a lot like sitting in a café with a friend trying to teach you a language while writing things on napkins. (Visit the course and you'll find this description isn't that far off the mark.) yasmine040's course probably isn't going to revolutionize the way we teach language, or even Dari, but maybe it should. Especially with unusual languages, a lot of the courses tend to heighten, rather than reduce the intimidation factor. They're put together by experts with their jargon, their desire to present the language just so, etc. So learning Dari from a med student giving lessons on weekends for the curious is a pretty low-pressure alternative. If you're interested in Dari and want to get your feet wet, click the link above.

Uyghur on a blog

While yasmine040 provides a talkative introduction to Dari, New Dominion provides a text intro to Uyghur that still manages to be chatty. Unlike so many courses that focus primarily on language (including the ones on this sight, sigh), New Dominion's Uyghur Survival course spends a lot of time on scene setting. By the time you encounter the first vocabulary items, you're already mentally walking through the market or looking for a place to get some polo (a pilav dish with veggies and meat stirred in). As a result, you pick up the language in context, almost as though it's come up in a travel novel and not a language lesson. The course covers less language content than others of the same length, but the content is meaningful and that makes it worth it. So if you'd like to take an imaginary journey to Urumqi or Kashgar, get a bite to eat and find yourself some bargains in the market, click here and enjoy.

Finally, try not to take notice that the article below is about the dangers of dabbling in languages similar to others you've studied and why it's not always a good idea.

July 2, 2010 - Fun with neighbor languages

Last month, I wrote a fair bit about Occitan. It was a fun dalliance with a language that falls midway between a few other languages I'm familiar with. For the aspiring polyglot, these neighboring languages are a blessing and a curse. When one has a bit of French and Spanish and starts reading Occitan, the initial impression is that it's very easy. And very soon, you might find yourself thinking, Maybe I'll learn this too. You won't. Or at least you won't unless you develop an independent interest in the language.

Very often, when we think of language learning, we think of the four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. But the communicative language teaching folks identify a fifth skill: culture. In real life, people do not go up to one another and say, "The ball is on the table" or "The ball is under the table" - which ought to be obvious - except under strange and unusual circumstances where the point needs to be emphasized. Rather, they speak of the things of life, and their utterances are in a context where more than words alone convey the meaning. And so, when you change languages, you change the cultural context in which things are being said.

Because language is experienced, in reality, through a cultural filter, switching languages requires a shift beyond using different words and patterns. It requires a shift in mindset. There's an old joke, recounted here, that I've seen in other forms:

Manuel is comparing notes with old Angus about their language and culture. Manuel asks Angus "Do you have any word in the Gaelic that means the same as 'mañana'?" "Och," says Angus "we have many such words, but none with the same sense of urgency"
This joke, of course, plays on multiple stereotypes and cultural filters, and ought prompt a chuckle from any Anglophone. But it highlights something important: Things like how we experience time are in part culturally conditioned. In English, when we use the word "procrastinate" (Latin pro - toward + cras - tomorrow), there is an element of chiding. In other cultures? Why is it not a virtue to enjoy today, knowing that some things can wait until tomorrow?

When you take up a neighbor language, it can be deceptively simple. But do those identical words mean the same thing? Obviously not always. In the case of a minority language, an undue reliance on words similar to those in the dominant language could even mark an attitude of condenscension. At the least, they'll show you to be an outsider. And when you read in neighbor languages, you're in the same place: you may know what's going on, but you don't really know what's going on.

Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't learn languages related to those you already know. It can be a fun and rewarding experience, and what you do know will give you a great headstart. But you should be forewarned: While the reading and listening may come easy, and the writing and speaking may follow, it's not enough to exercise the brain with these. You must also throw your heart into it by taking an interest in the culture - in the people whose thoughts you are trying to share.