On Language Learning: Dabbling in the shallows vs. Diving into the deeps.

In Mary Doria Russell’s theological sci-fi novel The Sparrow, one of the main characters, Jesuit linguist Fr. Emilio Sandos, speaks about a dozen languages fluently.  Artificial intelligence researchers spend months with him trying to figure out how he learns languages so easily: what are his methods? With me as with him, every new language learned brings more thoughts on how to learn languages and more experiences with different types of pedagogy.

This summer, I have been continuing two languages I already have a solid grounding in (Greek and Hebrew) while continuing to comprehend three more that I am still shaky in (Old English, Latin, and Qur’anic Arabic).  For the latter three, my learning has been an exercise in extreme contrasts.

Summer love.

Summer love.

I have been doing Latin for a year now.  However, I have primarily been dabbling in it, reading easy texts (e.g. Vulgate) while relying on Perseus way too much.  I decided this summer to get my act together and work through Wheelock’s, which would give me the solid foundation I needed to actually get the language.  It’s tedious, I love Wheelock’s: its aphoristic exercises, its side notes, its bad jokes, its crystal-clear (so far!) explanations of how the Latin language works.  I feel that I am really getting the skeleton of this language.  My goal is to jump into intermediate Latin this fall.

By contrast, Old English and Arabic have been far more playful.  The Arabic course has been taught with Munther Younes’ The Routledge Introduction to Qur’anic Arabic, which begins with whole surahs and lists vocabulary for students to learn for each one.  The grammar is given in small increments throughout the book.  For me it’s been maddening because I want to grasp the structures of the language, structures I already understand from Hebrew.  (Wheeler Thackston’s Introduction to Quranic and Classical Arabic has been staring at me from the shelf for a few weeks now!)  Likewise, Old English has been a very inductive exercise for me, with a similar level of crazy-making.

A part of me says that I am wasting my time dawdling around in languages without getting the grammar down systematically.  But I suspect that without that year of playing with Latin, I would not be enjoying Wheelock’s as much.  When I learned Hebrew, I did not dive directly into the difficulties of Page Kelley’s Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar, but first learned highly simplified grammar through Prayerbook Hebrew: The Easy Way.  Getting a panoptic feel for how the language worked made the tough grammar easier to swallow.  With Greek, I dived directly in, and first-year Greek was painful in part because I never got any time to wade at the shallow end before diving twenty feet in.

The conclusion to all of this?  When I start Sanskrit this fall, I will ask the professor if he can explicate some brief prayers or short texts to us before we start the grammar.  For me, it’s useful to have an anchor in how the language works, to play around with a language, before diving straight into the grammar.

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