Confessions in August 2010

Updated August 28, 2010

August 28, 2010 - A new language, a new world

Tomorrow's New York Times Magazine has an interesting article on how language affects our perception of the world. Many years ago, a researcher named Whorf argued that language shaped our thought, even to the extent that we couldn't understand what our language doesn't conceptualize. Obviously, this was a bit overdone: If language completely constrained our thought, we'd never make up new words to describe new things because 1) we wouldn't think of them and 2) we wouldn't recognize them for being what they were if we encountered them. Whorf's ideas were big for a while, and then when the flaws became too apparent to overlook, everyone sort of backed away and pretended language had no influence at all - that anyone could think anything. It's a bit more complicated.

The NYT article looks at this from the perspective of how we understand our world, how universal human experience is, and so on. But I think there are special challenges here for the language learner. For example, some languages give different names to the dark and light variants of what we, in English, call blue - Russian is one. We can of course say navy blue, or sky blue, or whatever, but we don't have to. There are other languages where the words for blue and green are the same, or where the sea, the sky and the grass are the same color, but green or blue cars might be different colors - this pops up in the Celtic languages. As language learners, we can get out our color swatches, and try to get a sense of the dividing line. But if somebody says to us, "Do you think this is more of a [light blue] or a [dark blue]?" we won't be able to sense the difference intuitively.

For the most part, the article touches on things that are a bit more exotic - conceptions of time, space, color, etc. But I think there's one very useful thing that could use more exploration, since it comes up even for languages like Spanish and French that are thought to be easier for English speakers: Politeness levels. As language learners, we all know the rule: Don't switch to the informal until a native speaker speaks to you in the informal. But how do they know? And what if, based on respective social roles, you're the one who should go first? This is a hard question, because it requires us to make a distinction in another language that we don't make in our own:

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.
In English, we can use "sir" or "ma'am," or even just "hey you!" But there are ways to sidestep it, to ease ever so carefully from respectful distance to personal closeness. To learn a Romance language is to find, suddenly, that there is (or hopefully will be) a small circle of people close enough to be called "tu," and then there is the rest of the world. And then, in novels about the '60s, there are self-conscious references to the move to make everyone your brother or sister by calling him or her "tu," but usually without too much discussion about what happened between then and now that the dialog set closer to the present still has people calling each other "vous" or "Lei".

When Whorf was rejected, it gave some hope that there could be a universality to our thinking. And wouldn't that be great for language learners? It would be wonderful if we could find the 1000 sentences that properly understood would illuminate the core vocabulary and key grammar of any language. But even if it could be boiled down to that, the 1000 sentences would be different for every language, and the notes for the translation would be miserable to get through. In English, we struggle with the gender neutral reference to a person - "he/she"? "s/he"? "they"? - but anything inanimate is simply "it". In Mandarin, as far as I can tell, it's all "ta" - at least in the spoken language - but for talking about things, you've got a plethora of measure words to keep track of. And then there's French past participle agreement - "Je l'ai pris" if you took "un journal," but "je l'ai prise" if it's "une revue." Clearly, different languages let you get away with ignoring some things and paying attention to others. Every American journalist is taught to focus on the W/Hs - who, what, why, where, when, how - but a French journalist needs to know what gender they are too! And so does any learner of French.

Are you looking for a way to get a better feel for the language you're learning? Look for those places where the language just doesn't line up with yours at all, then try to live in that language by making those distinctions a part of your thought. When I was reading Breton poetry, I made a point of identifying things by color, but especially of the fact that the sky, the trees and the reservoir we pass coming into town are all "glas," and it really helped with seeing the word "glas" and getting the impression of some quintessentially natural color, the stuff splashed most broadly across God's canvas, however many shades it might have.

Final thoughts: You'll note throughout this post, I refer to an article in tomorrow's NYT in the present tense. Even if it's still August 28th, you can read this article from the 29th. And we talk about other culture's having exotic notions of time! ... For a sentimental approach to Celtic colors, see the opening section of this essay, labeled Of hues and blues.

August 21, 2010 - Power and Motivation

Friday morning started with a nasty fender bender - no one was hurt but the cars weren't happy. Neither was I. With a shift in perspective, I'm in a bit better mood - on Friday morning, I walked away from an accident unharmed. Perspective is important, and too often, we lose it when life throws things at us that we weren't planning on. What really grinds us down, though, is when life messes up things we were planning on and we mistake sticking to our plans with living our lives.

I'd walked by it a couple times without noticing, but on Friday I realized the reason why they had all those copies of The Secret out at Borders was because there was a new book by the same author. This one is The Power, and it's about the power of love to drive us. It's sort of the flip side of The Secret's Law of Attraction - if we attract what we focus on, we focus on two types of things: those things we love, and those things that we really don't love at all. We spend too much time on the second. Even if you think the application of everything in these types of books is mumbo jumbo, there's no denying that if you spend too much time thinking about the things that bother you, the world you experience in your own mind is going to be one filled with things that irritate you. There ought to be something better.

In the introduction to The Power, we find this, typical of books like The Secret:

You were not meant to struggle. You were not born to live a life where the moments of joy are few and far between.
Later, it is noted:
Life is so much easier than you think it is...
Or, to rephrase, life doesn't have to be as hard as you make it.

Coming back to where I started, perspective is important. Objectively, life is as life is. But we don't live life objectively. We experience it through the filter of our thoughts and emotions. If we think something should be hard, we can make it hard - at least subjectively. When it comes to language learning, this can have disastrous consequences. Language is best learned, best understood and best used when we are relaxed. When we are fluent, our words flow. When we understand, things sink in - such a wonderfully passive image! When children learn, they soak up language like sponges. I'm not saying that language mastery is a bad thing, per se, but etymologically, you're talking about the Latin magister beating lessons into the recalcitrant schoolboys. Do you want your language to be something you can control, a slave to your thoughts? Or are you looking for something more in harmony with the rest of you?

The hardest part of language learning, of course, is not the language, but the self. When I look at myself and other language learners, I see an awful lot of effort at self-mastery. People make language learning into their second job, they talk about the discipline needed, they beat themselves up for not studying enough - all you can do if no one is docking your pay! And it's strange to see people put themselves through this for something they are supposed to love and take pleasure in. What makes it really strange is that it doesn't even work. Language burnout and drops in motivation are common. And when the motivation comes back, it's almost never because you've beat yourself just enough more. It comes when something reawakens your interest or reminds you of how you used to enjoy it before it became a chore. It comes when you rediscover your love for it. From The Power:

If you have been living your life saying to yourself, "I will be happy when I have a better house..." you will never have those things [you want] because your thoughts are defying the way love works.
If you are motivating yourself to learn languages with the thought of "some day," you may get what you want "some day." But in the mean time, your experience of learning will be one of waiting, not enjoying. If you are counting how many more words you need to be fluent, how many chapters are left in your book, how much more you need to do and then you'll be there, you are likely to be twice disappointed, first because of all the time you spend waiting for an imagined future instead of living in a joyful present, and after when you find out that even if you reach that imagined future, it's just another point in your progress, not an endpoint where everything changes after all. From The Power:
You have to be happy first, and give happiness, to receive happy things! It can't happen any other way, because whatever you want to receive in life, you must give first.
At one level, so obvious - we know that we can't learn a language till we put in the work - and yet we somehow don't link up that if we want a voyage of wonder and discovery, if we want a feeling of confidence, if we want a sense of achievement, we must build these in as well - they won't just magically appear at the end.

If you are stalled in your language learning, don't go looking for motivation, discipline, inner fortitude. Look for the love that got you started. If you are "okay" with your language learning, don't wait until it's a little less okay and the motivation slips. Look for the love that got you started. And if you're just totally in love with your language learning, congratulations! You're at the end of this post, and you can get back to doing what you love.

August 15, 2010 - Sanskrit - with Martha Stewart?

If you've ever watched a cooking demonstration on television, then thought to make the same dish for yourself, you may have noticed something: When you go to make the dish, your assistant has thoughtlessly failed to cut up the carrots, dice the onions and marinate the steak overnight and before you can make the dish, you have to make the things that will go into the dish yourself. You will then discover that while you can cut up carrots and dice onions on your own, you're not sure whether the contents of the bowl of egg whites - it was a light blue porcelaine dish, very pretty, you remember that - were whipped, beaten, mixed in a blender perhaps? - and you find that there's more to the thing than pouring a few things into a pot, popping it in the oven for twenty minutes and collecting praise for your culinary skills. When you go to learn a language like Latin, Greek or Sanskrit, you may find an element of the same thing: your comprehensive textbook has all the ingredients, but the author will likely have made some unwarranted assumptions about your knowing what to do with them and how to put them together.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, last week I picked up some materials for the study of Sanskrit. There were also some books around the house, acquired over the years. And so I have started my study of Sanskrit in earnest. The first challenge in learning Sanskrit is the Devanagari, a beautiful and logical way of capturing the sounds of speech with nearly fifty characters, before you get into the wonderful ways of writing the characters together should you wish to, say, write two consonants together. The Devanagari is fascinating and lovely, but there are hurdles, like remembering the difference between the horizonal squigglies of the "n" and the vertical squigglies of the "g". I'm told that the language is as versatile as the writing system, with some words capturing upwards of ten enfolded meanings. And I hear the structure is even more marvelous. However, I've only so far learned 39 characters, as well as how to write my name and the names of America and India phonetically. I am still mostly chopping the carrots for my Sanskrit show.

The older textbooks for Sanskrit called themselves grammars - more honest - but indicated that they were to be used for learning the language - mystifying. For these, it really was the case that you were to teach yourself the writing system, the endings and something called sandhi, along with a bit of prosody. Then, voilà, you would pick up Lanman's Sanskrit Reader and off you'd go. Somewhere along the way, a gentleman named Perry mixed bits of Whitney's grammar and Buehler's exercises (from an old German textbook for Sanskrit) and suddenly there was a way to systematically discover how much more you wish had been explained before you had to come up with Sanskrit of your own.

For my own learning, I will one day come to Perry, and then to Whitney himself. It shall be fascinating to see if with sufficient training I have any idea what's going on with them. For the moment, I am using Shah's Sanskrit: An Appreciation without Apprehension. It is a chatty and user-friendly book, taking you by the hand and making sure you don't get lost. However, it devotes 61 (!) pages to the Devanagari. Strangely, while it asks you to write out many things for practice, there is no guide to how to properly form the characters. For this, I have turned to Hart's A Rapid Sanskrit Manual, which has stuck the bit about the Devanagari in the introduction (if you haven't by chance you might want to learn these hundreds of characters and character combinations before you try to read my book, it doesn't say) but has at least thoughtfully provided a step by step guide for writing all of them. And so I proceed, opening Shah to find out which character I'm going to start using next, before turning to Hart to find out how to write it.

Weary of writing a lot without learning any actual Sanskrit, I have also pulled up the University of Texas' online introduction to Vedic Sanskrit (in transliteration), where I have read a few lines from the Rig Veda in transcription, and with copious notes about how the language works, similarities to Greek in the vocabulary, etc. It's an odd thing, moving so quickly from one venue where you can't even introduce yourself to another where you can practically hear the Soma stirrers invoking Agni, God of Fire, to make the green grass grow. They may be a ways off, but I can sense that Sanskrit has fine things indeed in store. A touch of writing, a touch of grammar and a liberal sprinkling of sandhi, whatever that is, and with any luck I'll have a splendid batch of Sanskrit one of these days. We'll see.

August 8, 2010 - The Possibilities of Polyglottery

A few days ago, at HTLAL, the question came up of how many languages one can learn - and how many one should. It was pointed out that history has a certain share of celebrated polyglots, so learning 20 or more languages certainly ought to be possible. I commented:

I think it's worth remembering that the geniuses of old who spoke 20 languages weren't taking the JLPT or posting YouTube videos to prove their linguistic prowess. Rather, they were living busy lives filled with varied people, places and interests. They didn't speak 20 languages merely because they wanted to. They spoke 20 languages because they had to in order to give full expression to the lives they had chosen for themselves. How well did they speak their 20 languages? Well enough for their purposes, which tells us nothing on the one hand and everything we really need to know on the other!

There are lots of reasons to learn languages: travel, literature, cinema, love and friendship, family ties, business, music and, of course, the love of languages. I think it works best to combine the love of language with something else. You need something outside the language itself not just to motivate you, but so that you can realistically assess whether your learning is actually adding something to your life.


The real allure of the polyglots of old, I think, was not just that they spoke 20 or 30 or 50 or 50 languages. The real allure was that in an era when many people never left their home villages, these men could seemingly go anywhere, however exotic, and read anything, however esoteric. The world was theirs.
Then, on another post, I ran across this excellent question:
I would like to know what languages you are currently studying and compare these to languages you would love to learn if this was a perfect world. Please include a statement about why you are not learning your dream language.
Ouch. I looked at my current language program. It is mostly about maintaining the languages I have to maintain the life I currently lead. Is that what I want? To be honest, I'm a little bit weary of life and work - is there even a difference between the two anymore? - and yet, if I'm honest about it, that's where my brain has been. I hadn't even been dreaming my dreams, never mind living them!

I went to San Francisco, to a bookshop dealing in foreign language textbooks that are sometimes difficult to find. I looked at Hungarian, at Dutch, at Swedish, but they were all crowded together into Europe, not so far from French and Spanish and Italian and German, and it felt a little claustrophobic. And then I found a different direction to go: through time. I picked up the "manuel pratique d'ancien français," a double escape to the past: first to the middle ages, but secondly to my grad school days. The odd spellings and obsolete words provided a peculiar sort of homecoming. I was transported to a place I hadn't been in some time, but which retained a certain familiarity. It was nice.

This weekend, I took one more excursion, further into the past: Sanskrit. One of my dreams has always been to get more in touch with those dead languages that are the repositories of civilizations now gone, to understand who came before us and what they have to share. And maybe, which of their missteps to avoid. At any rate, Sanskrit ranks right up there if you think that the world is yours when you can "read anything, however esoteric"! Having briefly looked at it some time ago, it will be curious to see if anything of it comes back, and how soon.

So therein lies a confession of a language addict: Sometimes, when the rest of life is grinding you down, you just have to feed that addiction, opening your mind again to the high of thinking new thoughts in new ways. Are you learning your dream languages? Are you preparing for your dream life?