Language (or learning) — what’s it for?

My maternal grandfather spoke Scottish Gaelic; it was his first and his preferred language.    He’d sit on his sunporch with a few friends (including my paternal grandfather) and construct Gaelic words for modern devices that weren’t in Gaelic dictionaries.  And he maintained that Gaelic was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden.

I’ve always wished that I could could speak it.  Gaelic could be a bridge not only to the past but to a culture I know little about.  The reality for me, though, is that I don’t have that bridge and am not likely to work at constructing it.  The few phrases I can muster, the little I can comprehend, are like pieces of board that get me across a few gaps.

Yes, I could take online courses, or turn to groups like An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach (the Gaelic Society of America), where I found a lively discussion about teaching Gaelic on LiveMocha.

The fact is, though, that I don’t have time or energy to get to a level of Gaelic proficiency that would satisfy me.  “Speaking Gaelic,” for me, is shorthand for a warren of skills. I’m pretty good at English; I’ve got some ability in French.  If I were to start another language, I’d want to be able to read it, at least at newspaper level, and to hold conversations in it like conversations I’d want to have in English.  I’m much likelier to try that for Spanish–though the idea of Chinese intrigues me.

All of which has to do with individual goals and definitions of “learning a language.”   One person might be happy simply to read, and have no concern about speaking.  As Henry Beard noted, nulli adsunt Romanorum qui locutionem tuam corrigant (there aren’t any Romans around to correct your pronunciation).

At first glance, the goal of “learning a language” seems obvious–but when you poke a bit, you uncover all kinds of reasons, from getting into grad school to picking up romantic partners.  And, of course, languages are messy.

One reason for that mess, says Arika Okrent, is that nobody invented human languages.  They weren’t designed (much to the dismay of the Language Police).  As she asks,  “Who invented French?”

A linguist, Okrent recently published the strangely fascinating In the Land of Invented Languages.  She’s studied a daunting number of languages deliberated created, of which Esperanto and Klingon are perhaps the most widely know… or spoken.

I think of learning as that which you’ve stored, retrieved, and then applied to some situation.  You recognize a spot on the map as France.  You’ve noticed that the slogans on the Olympic ice (with glowing hearts / des plus brillants exploits) aren’t the same idea at all.  You’ve said something spontaneously and correctly in another language.

Okrent notes that Esperantists “are motivated by the goal of fostering peace by bridging language barriers.”  For them, Esperanto is a means to an end.  They enjoy their language (they even have rock songs in it), but they’re confused by the complete lack of purpose for Klingon.

In part, she suggests, that’s because the goal of the Klingon speakers is so different from that of the Esperantists.

Klington is a type of puzzle that appeals to a type of person.  It is difficult, but not impossible, formed from the stuff of real language, just strange enough, just believable enough, small enough that you can know every word, the entire canon, but flexible enough to lend itself to the challenge of translation…

What are Klingon speakers doing?  They are engaging in intellectually stimulating language play.  They are enjoying themselves.  They are doing language for language’s sake, art for art’s sake, and like all committed artists, they will do their thing, critics be damned.

CC-licensed bridge image adapted from a photo by Unwrite These Pages / Jared Winkel.

Pélagie’s oxcart, or, learning to read by reading

Last spring, in Halifax, I came across Antonine Maillet’s novel, Pélagie-la-Charette. Maillet tells of Pélagie LeBlanc, deported like thousands of others from l’Acadie (what’s now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; see this map at Wikimedia).  Twenty years after le grand dérangement, Pélagie leads a band of Acadians  in an oxcart (hence her nickname, Pélagie the Cart) from Georgia back to Acadia.

I’d never heard of Pélagie or of Maillet, but  I wanted to know more about the Acadians, who don’t appear much in the Nova Scotia tales I grew up with (my family tree topples over with MacDougals and Macdonalds, MacLennans and MacLellans).  As a bonus, I’d get more practice with French.

It’s slow going, though–I’m just not that fluent, and Maillet’s style is vivid, idiosyncratic, and sometimes more of a challenge than I’m up to.   But it’s a new year, and today, I fished out a post I’d found months ago on John Biesnecker’s Global Maverick blog: How to read in a foreign language.

Biesnecker argues that new learners (and perhaps rusty ones like me) don’t know how to read…in a foreign language, anyway.  We’re accustomed to understanding stuff written in our native language, or the vast majority of it.

He tried to read his first Chinese-language book while commuting.  One practice he picked up was to ignore a word he didn’t know, and just keep going.

That’s not to say you should never look a word up while reading. If there’s a word that you’ve already seen five times in the last two pages and you still can’t figure it out by context, then by all means look it up. Just don’t waste your time on obscure adjectives that you’re not going to see again soon and that don’t affect the story if they’re ignored.

Here’s how this fits together for me: I hate not being fluent in French, especially since it’s the only other language I know (the odd Gaelic phrase notwithstanding).  Sometimes that manifests itself in my not wanting to speak French with French speakers.  Objectively I know it’s good for me; emotionally, I’m unhappy when I can’t express myself or when I feel I’m making things drag.  And, frankly, sometimes I simply can’t keep because I have neither the vocabulary nor the skill.

At the same time, this is work I have to do for myself.  I haven’t even looked to see if there’s a standard English translation, though I’m sure there must be.  It’d be too tempting to let the translator do what I want and need to do.

I like Biesnecker’s suggestion, though, especially because it corresponds to the way we learn about any new culture: in pieces, in a disorganized fashion, through repetition.  I’m not in a competition to finish Pélagie before the end of the week (or the quarter).  So I’m going to restart something I began last fall: copying the French text into an online document, then writing my own English translation.


Copying the French intensifies my focus.  I end up reading the text two or three times while transcribing, and then rereading the result (either in the document or in my book) to refresh the big picture.  And writing my translation in an electronic document means I can annotate, mark stuff I’m not sure about, and leave room for ambiguity.

So far I’ve done only a few pages.  I already like Pélagie (both La Charrette and her descendant, Pélagie-la-Gribouille ( ‘the scribbler’ ), so I feel I’ve neglected her, which is why I mention this mainly personal project here.

(Special thanks to Louise Côté, whose enthusiasm for Pélagie reinforced my choice, and to Jacques Cool, who recommended an ideal accompaniment: A Great and Noble Scheme: the Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadiens from Their American Homeland.)

(Added on January 4: here’s Maillet herself, reading an English translation from chapter one of Pélagie-la-Charrette.)

The language of learning, or, content with context

It's a puzzle(meant)--literally.I read once that in ancient Greece, the equivalent of “it’s Greek to me” was “it sounds like Hebrew.”  I’ve never found documentation of that, although Mark Liberman at Language Log recently presented a chart showing a complex of “it’s X to me” relationships–e.g., Romanians think it’s Turkish, Turks think it’s French, and lots of people think it’s Chinese.

Which leads to the ChinesePod blog and Ken Carroll’s latest post, Learning from Context. The language-learning approach at ChinesePod (and its siblings for learning French, Spanish, Italian, and English) doesn’t start with vocabulary lists and grammar rules.  Ken’s post helps explain why–and relates well to other kinds of learning.   He offers five reasons for a focus on context:

Context shows, it doesn’t tell. Outside of academia, when someone says you’re getting into semantics, it’s usually not a compliment.  In part that’s because they seem to be looking for overly discrete separation of meaning.  Showing words in context — like, say, showing good customer service in context — helps people understand how things work in real human interaction.

Context makes it natural. No traditional language course will prepare you to say to the waiter, “She’s the broiled scallops; I’m the tuna.”  (Baeed on an example Ken cites from John Pasden.)

Context goes beyond semantic meaning. I’ll let Ken do the talking here:

In linguistics, the relationship between context and meaning is known as pragmatics.  If semantics are concerned with what words mean, then pragmatics are concerned with what speakers mean.  The fact is that literal explanations of what words mean are neither inherently interesting, nor remotely memorable…

Far better to… [let] the learner figure out the meaning for herself, since she already knows what most of the concepts are…The learner figures out meaning by focusing on what speakers mean, which is why drama, sound effects, etc., can be so effective.

Context leverages pragmatics. Think of the many meanings for “That’s some outfit you’re wearing!”

That color doesn't look good on just anyone.For beginning language learners, you might put that into a literal context, or into an easily-perceived, non-literal one.  As Ken says, this can open up “a world of inference, subtlety, and color.”

None of this is to say that semantics don’t matter.  To speak French, for example, sooner or later you have to know that adjectives agree in number and gender with the nouns they modify (le cheval blanc [the white horse], la Maison Blanche [the White House]).

But few beginners come to a language thinking, “All right!  I’m going to learn number and gender.”  Instead, from the start they envision contexts: I want to order lunch in Lyon, I want to do business in Québec, I want to get a date in Paris.

And the final point: you can use different types of context. Ken gives an example of social context based on the relationship between speakers.  In a job-related setting, you might have a context related to a specific field (like information technology), or to a specific process (like manufacturing), or to an economic setting (like domestic versus international marketing).

Rosetta Stone jigsaw puzzle photo by Kaptain Kobold.
Distinctive outfit photo by Thirteen Of Clubs.

Priming the rock

I’m spending most of January and February with two subject-matter experts who are also exemplary performers.  My home office is just above our kitchen, which on Sunday evening looked like this:

You know what?  Let's eat out tonight.

I’m not much of a handyman, much less a craftsman; as an interested observer, though, I catch glimpses of technical jargon and insider shorthand, the kind of communication that flows when there’s shared expertise.

The contractors and I were talking this morning about expectations and understanding.  Rob, who specializes in painting, talked about a coworker he once told to “prime the rock” (put a coat of primer on some freshly hung drywall, one brand of which is Sheetrock, to get it ready for painting).

The coworked primed only the drywall–he carefully painted around the mud used to cover the screws, and he avoided getting any primed on the taped joints.

The coworker (as you figured) didn’t have any experience working with drywall, and was apparently inclined to take instructions literally.

Part of the great fallacy behind Telling as Training, of course, is the assumption that because you know what you’re talking about, other people will get what you’re saying.  (That’s apart from the idea that being talked at is an effective way to form new mental connections.)

Shortly before the remodeling began, I started reading Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought.  He looks at how we use language as a way of exploring how the mind works.

In part he argues that a relatively small number of fundamental concepts–event, cause, change, intend, having, knowing–are the major elements that our thoughts are built from.

It’s an entertaining read (though perhaps not as exciting as the brief flood fifteen minutes ago when things went awry near a water supply line).  Pinker works hard at countering the notion that language determines thought.  Clearly, language affects thought, in that to express our thoughts we select works and assemble them in forms consistent with the rules of our language.

In, at, through the window... More or less, anyway.

But the way we think in order to speak is not the same as the way we think.  In words, we can use “window” to refer both to a pane of glass in a wall and to the opening in which the pane sits.

We’re clear on the underlying concepts,  which is why we almost always understand what someone means when he says, “I saw her through the window.”

Some of the spark of creativity and insight comes from playing with those concepts.  The photo on the left get s a special twist because this post heightened the ambiguity that “through the window” can carry.

Kitchen photo by Dave.
Wallboard photo by Ben Chapman.
“Through the window” photo by flynnwynn.

Le scaphandre and the diving bell

Our DVD player came with a manual, which I last consulted when hooking up cables.  Every so often the player seems to tire of its default settings; it activates a feature we didn’t know existed.

A diving suit -- un scaphandreLast weekend we watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (here’s the trailer), based on the life of French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby.  A massive stroke left him unable to move except to blink his left eye.  (The French title is Le scaphandre et le papillon.)

I think the DVD player chose to play a version dubbed in English, rather than in French with English subtitles.  I found it confusing that the characters spoke English (with French accents) but pronounced the alphabet in French.  Only afterward did I realize the the movie hadn’t been made in English.

For me, trying to follow a soundtrack in French is confusing enough. There’s an almost unavoidable gap if you understand the spoken language as you’re reading subtitles — things get left out for the sake of speed or clarity or simplicity. And of course nuances get lost.  The Italian proverb is traduttore, traditore — “translator, traitor.”

Like the quirk in the English title — “scaphandre” isn’t “diving bell,” as in bathyscape — it’s “diving suit.

This morning I read Starting with Cantonese on John Biesnecker’s blog. John speaks Mandarin and is learning Cantonese. As he says in an earlier post, he wanted more exposure to the language than he was getting in a formal class.

What language classes really provide is not language education, but rather structure and expectations. You have to show up at a certain time, and you have to study in order to keep up with the class. In a perfect world, those things would push students to excel, but in reality the result is often frustration and abandonment.

There’s a lot to what he says, I think. The best formal language classes generate interest and excitement. They provide incentive to learn, and some students transform that into their own motivation.  But not all do.  I was thinking how enthusiastic I was in high school, learning French — but none of my three schools had language labs, and so my exposure to high-quality spoken French was limited to my teachers (which may account for the hint of Québec in my accent).

So I studied, which may explain why as a junior in Maine, I tended to get the highest grade in my class, but was unable to flirt with girls the way classmates like Boissoneault, Parisien, Bolduc, and Gagné could — they spoke French at home, they spoke it with one another, they joked around with the French-Canadian and French-Canadian-descended brothers who staffed the school.

John’s not a complete novice for either Cantonese or Japanese (another language he wants to improve), so his strategy of viewing movies and other media isn’t bad.  No worse than sitting in a language class with its inevitable reversion to the mean.

Last night, my wife and I went to a Smithsonian event, a book-tour chat by chef Jacques Pepin (who does a hilarious Julia Child impression).  Pepin’s been in the U.S. for 50 years, still with a strong French accent.

The point is that he’s succeeded in an English-speaking world, communicating clearly and entertainingly on a variety of topics.  He hasn’t let the accent stand in his way.  He’d notice that scaphandre doesn’t strictly mean “diving bell,” but he’d probably pay more attention to the compelling story in the film.

(A 2005 interview with Pepin by Bruce Cole.)

Diving suit photo by Terekhova.