Friday, October 18, 2013

On Learning Foreign Languages

"In one hundred years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college." - Joseph Sobran

"The relationship between a Russian and a bottle of vodka is almost mystical." - Richard Owen

I love my Facebook friends.  Most of the time, that is.  Yesterday we ended up having two great big, long debates on Facebook.  The one on a political topic turned ugly, pissed everybody off, and didn't ever find resolution.   I swear, next election season I'm gonna find a way to make opening Facebook shut my computer down.  "Politics" and "social media" are the new opposites.

That said, we (including some of the very same people who participated in the political one) held a very civil and quite productive discussion on the first quote above.  It was wonderful.  Granted, the topic of the debate/discussion wasn't really anything dealing with remedial English courses; that part is too obvious, and too obviously painful (especially to those of us who work in college-level education as I and many of my Facebook friends do) to really put any energy into.  No, instead, the talk was on the topic of the efficacy of learning Latin and Greek in high school, versus the more "useful" languages such as, say, Spanish, German, or Mandarin. 

That was very interesting.  What good is it, after all, to learn other languages?  I brought up, and somebody else backed it up with an article that had a picture of the human brain, that learning languages is like gymnastics for a part of the brain that doesn't get worked out otherwise.  Yay.  Brain pictures--cool.  That wasn't my main point, though, nor was it Sobran's.

To get more personal with this point, I consider myself a pretty good linguist.  I've been told by editors that my prose is very "clean."  I'm kinda proud to say that comes with no more than the basic required composition classes in high school and college both.

I also learned Russian at West Point, though.  It wasn't because I necessarily wanted to learn Russian, nor was it because that was the only choice.  It was, rather, that I thought that the Russians would be the nation's chief enemy and thus it would be a good idea for an Infantry officer to know their language.  It would be "useful," in other words.

The sheer volume of wrongness in my assumptions there is incredible, but that's not worth discussing here.  Regardless of reason, I soon found myself sitting in a class trying to learn one of the most foreign of foreign languages.  I mean, they don't just flip the alphabet around a little like the Welsh do; they have a completely different one.

And they conjugate their nouns.

I know, every linguist reading this just gritted their teeth.  "Conjugate" is what you do to verbs, you're probably screaming at this post right now, right?  It's the process of changing the word, slightly or more so, in order to make it clear what the verb is saying.  An example, in English: I see, and you see, and they see, but he, she, or it sees.  Now, though, time has passed since I wrote that, and so I saw, and you saw, and they saw, and he, she, or it saw.

Funky, right?

Not nearly as funky as Russian.

For nouns, the process of modifying the word to make its place in the sentence clear is called declension.  Russians do it, in spades.  English does it, too, to a lesser extent; I'd just never really noticed.  For example, if you're going to use the third person male pronoun in English, you might say that "he received a new straightjacket."  But if it's something being done to the third person male pronoun, you should say "I put him in a new straightjacket."  "He" changes to "him," and everybody's happy, right?  Except, perhaps, for the guy in the new straightjacket, but he doesn't care about us, and we don't care about him, right?

(didya see all the declensing I did in that last couple'a clauses?)

That's pronouns, now, and it's the old basic subject vs. object discussion that we had back in grammar school.  Meanwhile, nouns change--a lot--in Russian, and all depending on how they're used.  Let's take, for instance, the only Russian noun I still remember after all these years: vodka.  If you're going to say that vodka tastes good, then it's spelled just like that: vodka.  Using, I should add, that funky Cyrillic alphabet, but let's not get too crazy.  If, on the other hand, you're going to say that the vodka drink tastes good, you've changed the noun from one that stands as a subject itself (nominative) to the case that describes another noun (genitive).  It's telling us what kind of "drink."

And then there's the dative case, which sadly has nothing to do with dates or with dating no matter how much vodka is involved.  No, the dative case is the formal way of describing the object portion of the subject-object issue I mentioned before.  And yes, it applies to both nouns and pronouns.  While English changes pronouns but not nouns: "she hit her in the face" but "the girl hit the girl in the face," Russian does both, because we need to know who's getting hit in the face in Russian no matter who is doing it to who--er, whom.

As a result, though in English we really don't give a crap whether it's vodka or a vodka drink waiting to be consumed, or even whether I drink the vodka, in Russian it's "vodka" or a "vodky" drink, and I drink neither "vodka" nor "vodky" but instead "vodke."

Yeah, you have to learn all that to learn Russian.

Yeah, I hated it.

Still, I'm glad I took the two courses in the language.  Why, you ask?  It's not because I'm anywhere near conversant in Russian.  I mean, yeah, I can now order a vodka if I'm ever over in Moscow ("Moskva"), but I could've probably managed that even without the courses.  They'd'a probably giggled a little at my wanting to drink vodka instead of "vodke," but after enough vodky vodkas are consumed, who really cares, right?

What learning the little bit of Russian did for me, though--and this speaks back to the original topic of the post--was taught me more about the language I speak, no matter which one it is.

By paying attention to how the noun is used, in other words, I've become much more knowledgeable--and cognizant of that knowledge, too--about nouns.  Same with verbs, as well as with other parts of speech that I've always flippantly tossed out in English but had to pay attention to while mangling them in Russian.

I think that if we required every high school graduate to have passed a full year of coursework in Russian, we wouldn't need nearly as many remedial English courses in college, is what I'm saying.

But that's probably just me.

Might need more vodkui, though.


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