Language Learning, again

I hadn’t originally meant to whine about grammar. Well, perhaps I had. The weather was fantastic today — dry, warm, sunny, almost like Tucson. I went for a walk — not very long, but delightfully charming. And as I was walking, I thought about how we don’t really teach kids how to study. Write out the word until it catches. It may take fifty times. But that’s not really how it works, is it? It took me once, about thirty seconds three months ago at a restaurant in Tbilisi to learn that the palm of the hand, in Georgian, is the “hand’s heart,” and knowing hand and heart, I’ll probably be able to piece it together. I wrote out the Georgian word for winter twenty times, and it still hasn’t caught. I’m pretty sure there’s a z in it somewhere. And I thought about Jacques Barzun’s advice, and the advice of people who like to learn languages, to start with any book that you’re really interested in and build a study regimen around that, because if you’re bored by the meaning of the text you’re studying, you’re not going to care about it in any language. I thought about how very hard it is to be interested in language textbooks.

The fundamental problem (I mean it in the sense of “math problem,” as in “thing to be resolved,” rather than “thing that’s going wrong”) in art is learning to see what you’re looking at in a particular way. Out brains tend to automatically process visual input into things, which are attached to concepts, which are attached to symbols and words. You see a butterfly, and no matter how complicated it actually is, whizzing about, changing perspective and lighting or whatever, you register it as a thing that’s attached to a concept that’s attached to a word that’s attached to something that looks roughly like a B flipped in both directions, with a little stem and some curls at the top. Which is an impressive and amazing thing for our brains to be able to do so automatically as they do, but it can be a drawback when we’re trying to make art, because that’s not really what butterflies look like unless they’ve been pinned to a board, and most of us aren’t trying to draw pinned butterflies (and if we are, there are some nuances to that as well). So we find ways to train our eyes to not make all those step right at first — we make it stop the process midway, where everything is light, color, shape, value, line, and mass. That’s the stage where we can see the components that make up the elements of design. We make our eyes stay there and see what the shapes actually are, just now. What part is darker or lighter, bluer or greener, than what other parts. At first we have to trick our minds into it — we make negative space drawings, because our minds usually filter all that out and isolate the thing itself, distorting or flattening it. We make blind contour drawings, gesture drawings, up-side-down drawings, timed drawings, perspective drawings, optical illusions. Eventually we re-train our minds to see the stuff it’s been filtering out, and we can draw or paint or sculpt better.

What is most central to beginning language learning? It seems to require a further distinction be made, because there are different interests behind language learning, and language is never neutral — it’s always communicative of something, even on a test. The text of the test I was complaining about communicated that the test makers don’t really care whether the test taker got anything of value from the essays, so long as they have memorized an endless series of possible phrasal combinations. There wasn’t a single question about meaning. the essays were about Loch Ness and Oxford because they had to be about something, but they were hard to read for meaning, because the style was poor, and they somehow gave the impression of not having been written for meaning, but for leaving a lot of blanks that would admit successful informed guesses. The essay on Oxford was especially awkward — I had to read it four times, and still didn’t learn anything other than that Buckingham Palace is in or at or on the west end of a park, and a castle somewhere used to be a prison.

The central problem of adult language learning may not be too conceptually different from art, however different it may be in practice. It’s about re-routing mental resources out of one language and into another. And that’s at least as difficult, and needs to be addressed at least as directly, at routing visual energy out of symbolic recognition, and into the elements and principles of art. It is, in that respect, different from literature, history, philosophy, or most of the humanities. That’s because the normal course of thought — well, my normal course of thought; the normal course for someone who’s not a philologist — is to go off and think or talk about it, in one’s own language. To emphasize those parts of language learning which will make sense from the outside, as it were. The most natural reaction, for someone trained in essay writing, to learning that Georgian has seven cases, is precisely this. This being what I’m doing at this moment. To incorporate that into an essay, blog, or discussion. It’s usually a pretty powerful way to think about things, and an extremely powerful learning tool. If you can put something in your own words, that means you understand it. Until you’re a noob in a foreign language, that is. Then it’s a crutch, like thinking a butterfly looks like a reflected B. If you’re like me, your back-up plan is probably to study linguistics, because then you can feel like you’re making progress, without having to really admit that the progress you’re making is in linguistics, not in the language you’re trying to learn. You’re going to be more pleased by successfully translating a sentence than by successfully saying it. The central problem of language, for an adult, perhaps especially for an introverted adult, is that what you can say about it will probably be more interesting, less demanding, and more comprehensible to your close friends than most anything you’re able to say in it.

Linguists have some jargon for this, I think — something about an affective filter, I think. But there it is: I don’t like small talk much in any language. It wears me out, in any language. It can get pretty annoying pretty fast in any language. Things that are really worth saying are difficult to say in any language. I don’t have the words, even in English. The thing I liked best about learning a little Greek was being able to say really difficult things that take pages to say in Greek in a phrase or two — which meant learning a lot of connotations. I think that it was learning the connotations that was really interesting. But we don’t teach connotation, even in high school, which is perhaps one of the more important things I could imagine contributing. Pity, that. It would be ever so much more interesting than figuring out whether it’s better to ask how long you’re working or how long you have worked, or whether the palace is in the park, on the park, at the park, or by the park. A walk in the park is a cliche, but that’s what provides associations to talk about. Grammar lessons are hardly a walk in the park. So it’s a cliche: you have to know it, but try not to use it; and then go read some postmoderns on the exhaustion of language and culture that comes about when most every natural association becomes cliche.

But that was a rabbit trail. The actual trail is sort of stark. Let’s say I were trying to learn some Georgian. Let’s say I, like all students in all language classes, apparently, were given a list of more or less uninteresting and arbitrary words to memorize — because what word won’t be uninteresting and arbitrary if it’s not attached to anything yet? For instance, from my Georgian textbook:

shekhvedra — meeting

kuchashi — in the street

tskhovrobs — lives

sts’avlobes — studies

ena — tongue

Actually, I know three of these words, and I know what to do with them in the present tense. The subject is in nomative and the object is in dative — nomative gets an -i ending unless the root ends in a vowel, and dative drops the -i and adds an -s. In the present tense verbs -s is the third person ending (as it is in English), so to change the person we could drop that and substitute the proper person marker, which I happen to know as well. Skhovrob doesn’t need an object, so I could say something like me vskhovrob ak, which means “I live here.” I think that I could say shen sts’avlob inglesur tsigns, which means “you are studying an English book. I think. Don’t quote me on that. I know ena because the first grade primer is deda ena, which means Mother Tongue. -shi is a postposition that means in or to (to is implied if it’s used with a verb of motion, or if not, in). So the root for road must be kucha, which ends in a vowel, and therefore doesn’t need an -i. I could almost certainly learn kucha, given a few dozen repetitions in my head. Shekhvedra sounds familiar — I’ve probably heard it somewhere, but wouldn’t be able to pull it out when I needed it, and, more importantly, wouldn’t be able to use it properly, because I don’t know what declensions it needs. At least if I learned kucha I could use it in a dozen or so iterations. So the only real difficulty with that list is shekhedra, which I could memorize and still not be able to use, because I simply don’t know how that kind of word is used.

But I don’t care a whole lot about shekhevdra anyway, I not only don’t know how to use it, but don’t know that I want to. I do know that I want to learn the Pascha hymn, which goes like this:

kriste agsdga mkvdretit sikvdililta sikvdilisa damtrgunveli da laplavelis shinata tskhovrebis mimnitchebeli. 

Well, ok. Kriste I get. agsdga is rose, and agsdgoma is resurrection, which is Georigan for Easter as well. Apparently it’s old and irregular, but not too difficult. My friend says that mkvdreti is death, and -t means, in this case, something like from. So far, I can’t necessarily remember it, but I do get it, so much as i’m likely to. I really like sikvdilita sikvdilita, actually. It’s kind of a crunchy phrase, and nicely declined — those are the declensions -is and -it (possessive and “by means of which something will be done” as in rogor midikhar? Pedit, marshutkit, mankanit? How will you go? By foot, by marshutka, by car?), with an extra -a because it’s nice to say. Georgian poetry very often adds -a or -sa because they’re nice to say, apparently. You would too if you had words like damtrgunveli. Speaking of which. Just roll that one around in your mouth a bit and try not to loose any consonants. That’s right, ma-mtrgu-nve-li. In Georgian mtrgu is an acceptable syllable. Anyway, I have no idea how that word works — it’s “something is defeated by something else.” da is a conjunction, like and. That’s as far as I got by asking my friend, but I do know that tskhovrebis, life, is related to tskhovrob, live, as in sad skhovrob? Where do you live? Is that -is the possessive case ending? I don’t know.

Edit: in case you wonder what that should sound like, it should sound like this:

The issue with all of this is, of course, that as much as this kind of thing might help me to learn Georgian better, and you to learn a little more about grammar and better appreciate speaking a language where mtrgu is not a syllable, and will not be sung several hundred times this Easter, you will almost certainly get tired of this sort of essay long before I can speak in tolerable Georgian. It’s alright — I don’t want to read your blog about learning Cantonese, either.

So my question of the moment is: is there any way to direct the substantial power of writing toward language learning (I mean the power of writing to help the writer remember and figure stuff out) when a) I can’t yet write in the target language, but have to write about it, and b) I don’t know who I’d be writing to or why they would be interested in it?

But… it’s late and I should go to bed.


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