Confessions in January 2011

Updated January 31, 2011

January 31, 2011 - Approaching the world from other directions

Over the past few months, I've been working through Assimil's L'Alsacien sans peine. The other day, I finished the first wave - I've been through all the lessons at least once. Now it's a continuation of the second, active wave, attempting to recreate the Alsatian from the French, as opposed to merely understanding it. At times, it comes easily. At others, it's clear that I haven't absorbed everything. Yet there's no question I've experienced the world from a new direction. Not only is the text Alsatian; it's filled with references to the Alsatian culture and the content of the dialogs evokes a world that moves at a different pace from, say, Paris.

I've still got another month before I finish the Alsatian book, and I intend to go through it a third time, as well as its appendices, just to take a firmer hold of what I've gotten out of it. At the same time, there are new projects on the horizon. The first of these, I mentioned earlier: a return to Breton. This time, I'll be doing the Assimil Breton properly, and seeing if I can soak up with ease what came much harder before, when I tried to study more intensively.

While I'll be working on Alsatian and then Breton, there is another way of describing the world that interests me but which I've put on the back burner for some time, and that is the world of numbers and science. As with my Assimil projects, I do not intend to learn all there is to know, just to gain some passing familiarity. It's been a long time since I completed a minor in chemistry, and even longer since I (barely) finished integral calculus. Recently, I stumbled upon David Berlinski's Tour of the Calculus. It's a good book for those with a humanities bent, focusing more on the ways calculus opens up our ability to approach the world through mathematics, rather than teaching the procedures for calculus. This is nice: Even when I ever so briefly knew how to work out an integral, the fact of doing so never meant that much to me. After that, I'll be moving on to Feynman's Six Easy Pieces and then Six Not So Easy Pieces, selections from his lectures on physics. And once I've done that, I'm sure I'll be more than ready to get back to the more cozy territory of playing with languages again!

January 16, 2011 - The Experience of a Language

Sometimes we learn languages for eminently practical purposes: Going on holiday, relocating, communicating with a spouse or a spouse's family. Other times, there's not such an immediate purpose. Yet it is not uncommon to meet people who want to learn French or Italian, for example, for no better reason than that they have always wanted to know French or Italian. Some of these endeavors turn out more successful than others, but then that raises the question of how you define a successful language learning experience if you don't have actual plans to use the language.

I think there is a place for what you might call language tourism. Some people dream of seeing Paris. This doesn't mean they renounce their citizenship and move to France. It can be enough to go there, to see the sights, collect the memories and maybe give some thought to going back again. The same can be the case with language. The mastery and maintenance of a dozen languages can be hard. Yet it would be sad to think of not having a look at a language that interests you if you don't have a plan in place so that you'll still be speaking it when you die. We're talking about the difference between visiting Paris and moving there.

Some years ago, Douglas Adams wrote a book, Last Chance to See, in which he visited exotic locales in order to see endangered species before they vanished forever. In the last few years, I've stumbled into a similar venture, studying a bit of Breton, a bit of Occitan and, most recently, Alsatian. We don't know how long these languages will last. Granted, they're not down to 50 speakers, all aged 60 or above. But they're still reeling from the French governments' efforts to kill them from the time of the Revolution all the way through a Fifth Republic whose constitution declares French to be the sole language of the French people. When you hear the French cry of anglicismes diluting their culture, it's worth noting that they are not advocating the principle that distinct languages, cultures and heritages are worthy of preservation; they're bemoaning the failure of the people to respect the authority of the Académie and the culture ministers. And so it's become an interest of mine to "visit" these languages before modern life and the marketplace complete the work the French government began a couple centuries ago.

It's a bit late stumbling into the chatter about plans for the New Year, but this is the first post I've gotten to, so I'll take this moment to note my plans: Continuation of my language tourism with a return to Breton, once I've finished working through the Alsatian course. In the mean time, if you've had thoughts of learning a language for the new year, but things aren't getting off the ground, take it easy on yourself, ease into your studies and know that even if you don't actually master the language, you'll always have the experience of seeing a new way of thinking from the vantage point of another culture.