A language-learning proposal

Continuing to sing the praises of the under-appreciated Helen DeWitt, I must tell you about her language-learning proposal. For a bit of context, I will first tell you about a brief conversational exchange I had with my ninth-graders at Weston High School a few years ago:

Me: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?

Class (without prompting): Trilingual.

Me: And what do you call a person who speaks two languages?

Class: Bilingual.

Me: And what do you call a person who speaks only one language?

Me (without pausing for the class to answer): American.

In a recent entry in her paperpools blog, Helen DeWitt observes that “there is never a point at which people are encouraged to try a range of languages, and in particular to see what it is like to read a short passage in each by a great writer. It seemed to me that one could try something like this: introduce three languages of increasing difficulty, beginning with the simple challenges presented by reading, then working through a short text.”

This idea bears a resemblance to my real-life seventh-grade experience at Newark Academy in our wonderful required General Language class, a thinly disguised linguistics course. We spent one semester on the history of English, followed by a second semester on Latin, French, and German. As you’ll see in the next three paragraphs, it differs from DeWitt’s plan both in the choice of languages and in the absence of a “great writer,” but there is still a definite connection. Here is what DeWitt suggests:

[O]ne might start with 1. Italian. (A good starting point for the many people whose first second language was Spanish or French.) One introduces the principles of Italian orthography, so that the reader, looking at a text, knows how it shd be pronounced; one then goes through a short passage from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, providing relevant grammar and vocabulary. 

One would then go on to 2. Ancient Greek. Alphabet not dissimilar to ours; the student still starts with a big advantage. The object is to work through the first 7 lines of the Iliad. One points out that the Greek alphabet can be divided into true friends, false friends and aliens. There are letters that look familiar and do, in fact, represent roughly the sounds represented by their modern lookalikes (α β δ ε ι κ ο τ υ ς Α Β Ε Ι Κ Μ Ν Ο Τ Ζ); letters that look familiar but represent different sounds (γ η ν ρ χ ω Η Ρ Χ Υ); exciting letters no longer in use outside mathematics (ζ θ λ μ π σ φ ψ ξ Γ Δ Θ Λ Π Ξ Φ Ψ Ω). One starts the student off with exercises spelling English words in Greek letters, moves on to introduce Greek pronunciation and some Greek words, and then goes through the first 7 lines of the Iliad. (One does not need all these letters for Iliad 1-7.) (Sceptics may think starting with Homeric Greek is really jumping in at the deep end, but it is only 7 lines. ) 

One would then go on to, as it might be 3. Arabic. Totally different script, with many letters representing sounds not found in English. Also, a Semitic language! (How lovely!) But this, too, is less difficult than it looks; one starts on the script, using a version of the method described above, introduces the new sounds, and then works through a short passage—I was thinking, maybe, a few lines from Ibn Rushd on tragedy. On reflection 2 hours seems wildly optimistic and even 3 somewhat optimistic. Seems as though explaining how a Semitic language works would not be the work of a couple of minutes. 

Well, yes. However, let’s take the proposal seriously but not literally (a phrase that unfortunately has been co-opted by Trump supporters). We might want to compare DeWitt’s choice of Italian, Ancient Greek, and Arabic with what I learned at Newark Academy and with a course I taught at Lincoln-Sudbury. Although an argument can be made that the precise choice of languages isn’t all that important, I should point out that Newark Academy was not only thoroughly Eurocentric at that time but even Anglocentric, drifting only as far as France, Germany, and Rome in the case of the seventh-grade linguistics course and not even outside of England in the required ninth-grade history course, which studied English history for an entire year. Not even British history—just English!

But I digress.

Back to my Lincoln-Sudbury course. Keep in mind that this was the 1970s, and it was Lincoln-Sudbury, meaning that the English Department program consisted entirely of electives after the required ninth-grade course. Most semesters I taught three math classes and two linguistics or writing classes (in the English department). Of the linguistics classes I taught there, my favorite and the students’ favorite was Languages of the World, which provided a brief introduction to four languages: Norwegian, Ancient Greek, Turkish, and Mandarin. So there we have two Indo-European languages—one close to English, one not, although with a lot of related vocabulary—and two non-Indo-European, one with almost no morphology and one with a complex system of suffixes. The writing systems, of course, ranged from our Latin alphabet through two variations on it and one completely different, although of course with a brief exposure we transliterated the Mandarin (in Yale notation, not Pinyin, as it was the ’70s).

It’s too bad that DeWitt’s proposal is not practicable.

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning