Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Oh, for the language of birds!

I also would like to learn the language of birds.
People in fairy tales sometimes have the luck of it.
(Illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass.)
I've never spoke a second language well, though I'm perfectly willing to give the thing a go when I only have a couple of pages of phrases mastered. So in Cambodian, I spoke a little Khmer / Cambodian, and in Thailand, some Thai. One thing that surprised me in Cambodia is that absolutely everybody seemed to be learning English in order to to better themselves, and so I could have conversations where I inflicted Khmer on people while they tried out English on me. Great fun, much laughter. In Japan, I expected everyone would know English, but only a very few did, especially on Sado Island, but I managed enough Japanese (thank you to my daughter, whose love for all things Japanese meant she could critique my pronunciation) to have odd little conversations and laugh with strangers. In Paris, my schoolgirl French, mostly forgotten, had a tiny revival. And for a trip to Chile, Peru, and Mexico, I had no time at all to study, so listened to recordings the day before and took a list of phrases with me. It's surprising how much communication is possible with fifty phrases and a little boldness and rhythm-mimicry. I did take a little Russian in school (from a colorful White Russian woman who adored the class members so much she didn't push us) but have forgotten it, just as much as I forgot the French or more--and I've never been to Russia. When the the eventual next trip comes along, I'll need a smattering of German, and maybe another language.

My lightly-considered opinion of my brain on the language-learning front is that I don't have a fabulous memory but I'm pretty good with sounds (well, excluding the impossible, twisty language of Wales!) and with picking up vocabulary. I don't retain if I don't continue laboring at it, though. That pesky memory at work...

But I would like to know a second language well, and think I will start studying daily once I decide what language it should be. And there's the question. What's a good second language for an American novelist and poet? Should it be something where there's a great need of translation, so when I'm an ancient, doddery old crone (if I am lucky enough to endure so long) with the risk of having no inspiration, I can always translate? So far I can't really imagine not having the impetus to play with words and make stories and poems, but evidently it happens to many people and therefore may happen to me. Should the language be Spanish because there are so many Spanish speakers? Should it just be a language I love? But they're all so different and interesting, crammed full of wondrous words.

If you have an opinion, tell me! I'll definitely ponder it.

37 comments:

  1. If the urge to connect with music is strong enough you could learn Italian, the only true singing language. I offer this as pure theory since I am only happiest when singing German. Most Anglophones reject German, citing what they see as awkwardness and a heavy dependence on the Lego principle. What these tin ears are unaware of are its clarity and strength.

    You enjoy fantasy, don't you? Imagine being able to sing or say this with conviction:

    O Isis und Osiris
    schenket, der Weisheit Geist dem neuen Paar...


    Alternatively the two snob languages, Latin and Greek, though you might only communicate with snobs.

    Welsh seemed to sound marvellous when sung. On closer inspection it turned out to be as knobbly as a bag of walnuts.

    I am no help at all. My criteria tend to be musical. Incidentally if your enthusiasm for English is wavering, try the libretti for Dowland and Purcell. One of my current Purcell works has words by Dryden:

    Gentle murmurs, sweet complaining,
    Sighs that blow the fires of love...

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    1. I like your criteria, though I doubt that I will again join a choir--I've already got such a pile of village activities and obligations. It's amazing how many things one is asked to do in a small community, and I'm not so good at saying "No!"

      Lego principle! Haha! I've done three hours of duotrope and last night said some ridiculous things in German to my husband, who is ahead of me, having studied while he was laid up after surgery. He likes German because it's easier to pronounce than many other languages and gives him some easy cognates.

      I find learning ancient Greek an appealing idea but wish I had thought so when I was young. Now I'd rather learn a language that is useful, I think, for travel and translation. Not sure.

      Bag of walnuts is apt. My friends Clive and Peter laughed heartily at me (without the least bit of restraint!) when I tried to pronounce "Rhydderch," as in The White Book of Rhydderch. It's an impossible word!

      I wonder if Dryden is now known more for lyrics... Is there more of Dryden set to music? I did read him in school but have not since.

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  2. My tourist German served me when we were in rural Holland and nobody spoke English, and I got along okay in Vienna, too. I embarrassed myself in Paris with my incomprehensible version of French. In Prague I was able, just barely, to give directions to a Russian woman in her language. I have a tiny spattering of Spanish. I've told myself time and again that I'll put more effort into my German and I manage to plow through at least one German-language book a year, with a dictionary at my side.

    I'd like to speak the language of cats, I think. A friend of mine is studying ancient Greek, as it happens.

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    1. Oooh, yes, that would be so convenient for me, as my one remaining cat is wonderfully dumb. I probably could mop less often.

      In fairy tales, the birds tell wondrous secrets that make you get rich and marry the princess! I don't want to marry the princess, but it would be convenient for paying off my husband's student loans...

      I honestly jettison most of what I've learned after a trip. I would have to re-learn to go back. But usually I take lists of notes with me and converse after reviewing them! Busy woman's mode, I guess. Or lazy?

      And I admire your diligent progress through German novels. You are a good example.

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    2. I thought right away of Anderson's nightingale, and then I remembered that people are always getting into mischief when they talk to animals. But I'd like to know what's up with my cat.

      The thing that has been most helpful in Mysterious Foreign Lands is to ask one of the locals, "How do you say 'thank you' in your language?" They are always so happy to tell us, and then Mary and I thank everyone for everything for the rest of the trip. I think the only Czech I learned was how to say thanks.

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    3. Yes, I also think making the proper greetings is hugely important. I think that I'll be going to Prague (briefly) some time in the next year, and I'm sure I'll only have a list of a few dozen phrases...

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    4. p. s. Think of Puss 'n Boots! Your cat might be oh-so-helpful...

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  3. Greek or Latin....passports to the classics....I wish I had continued beyond my two years of Latin....I wish I had signed up for Koine Greek in college....mea culpa.....

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    1. It's never too late to learn something fascinating. I've somehow gotten something out of the languages in which I learned a few dozen phrases--what exactly, I'm not sure. Maybe the realization that a little bravery and interest in other people can take us fairly far? Maybe that there are sounds and swing in other languages? Maybe just a feeling that words really are magic...

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  4. Latin, as giving one easier access to all the Romance languages, and also giving one a notion of how German grammar works. On the other hand, W.M. Spackman thought that one should start with Greek as simply having that much more interesting a literature.

    Or something wholly different. Anthony Burgess wrote that it was a revelation to learn Malay and encounter a language where syntax counted for nothing and semantics for everything. (Cited from memory--the book is elsewhere.) In that case, either Japanese so that your daughter can prod you, or Chinese because there is so much of Chinese literature.



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    1. Hah, so little agreement in these comments!

      My daughter doesn't actually know Japanese, not really, but as a child she watched a ton of Japanese film. So she picked up a lot of scraps and is good at pronunciation.

      Now I am dithering even more...

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  5. It's painful to lose one's working knowledge of a language. I studied Russian in college, and twenty years ago I could expertly sight-read Latin, whereas today I need a dictionary and the occasional peek at a grammar. I stare at difficult Latin texts now and feel like I'm in an epilogue to "Flowers for Algernon" as I squint and slowly discern patterns that used to leap out at me.

    I will say, German is great fun. Until last year, for around ten years, I studied the language with the help of a native speaker in D.C. and have managed to get to what the EU considers the low-intermediate level. One up side of German is that there's so much wonderful stuff to read. It's also a rare entryway to the elusive and enigmatic German sense of humor, which in the pop-culture these days is dark and self-deprecating. The rest of the world doesn't often see that.

    I'll be curious to see what language you choose! You can't choose badly; every language is a doorway to a whole new set of rooms in your mind...

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    1. I don't think I was ever better at the two languages I had in school than, say, tediously translating with a dictionary--or not much better. There are so many works I would love to read in the original. Perhaps I should think in that direction. What would I most like to read?

      I wanted my children to do Rotary exchange but, alas, none of them did. Perhaps it was just my own regret about not doing such a thing.

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    2. I understand—for all the short-term traveling I did in my twenties and thirties, I've never spent an extended period of time in another country, although I still dream of spending a month or two in Konstanz in a German immersion program. But that's why I'm so pleased to see my best friend's 14-year-old son getting fluent in Chinese, which he got to field-test during a two-week trip to China last month. The window for really mastering new languages closes so early in life, a truth I suppose I will never stop trying to disprove....

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    3. Yes, it's sad that we aren't as open to learning languages as when we were children. They say that I spoke Cajun French with my playmates when we lived in Louisiana--I think I was three then--so perhaps I should learn that!

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  6. I had a look at Little Wilson and Big God, and found that Anthony Burgess was 37 when he took a post in the then Federated Malay States and started to learn Malay. Thirty-seven is a good deal younger than I am now, but it is well out of the range of childhood. So one can learn still.

    Practically, it would be easier to take up again one or both of the languages you learned in school. Get a book of essays, a dictionary and a grammar, and start reading. It will eventually become easier, and the dictionary can be set aside for longer and longer periods.

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    1. I have just started German so that I can "get by" when I'm on a trip later this year, but I shall be deciding soon. I expect you are right. One thing that surprised me when traveling in countries where I knew very little is that you do pick up new words and even sometimes have the sense that you are in the rhythm of the language and will soon begin to understand--an illusion, no doubt, but a pleasant and enticing one.

      What a well of energy Burgess had! That wasn't long before the year he was told that he hadn't long to live, right? And then he wrote five novels in a year.

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    2. It was Burgess's duty to learn the language, and HM Government arranged for teachers. But indeed few of his fellow civil servant seem to have tackled languages with the same energy. Yes, it was the end of his colonial assignments that the doctors concluded that Burgess was hadn't long to live.

      Good luck with German. Perhaps you should acquire the Bible in Luther's translation. That had an immense influence on the development of modern German, and should be easier to read given the source.

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    3. I'm not going that far with German! Unless I pick it for one to really study... Think it might be French. Not sure.

      Burgess was such a character! And rather Trumpian as to hair...

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  7. For French, I would prescribe something like de Tocqueville's Souvenirs or Mme. de Stael's De l'Allemagne: much of interest, but with a manageable vocabulary and straightforward prose. On the other hand, Clive James says Sainte-Beuve. He also says to keep a Larousse handy, and though I don't know about Sainte-Beuve, I agree on the dictionary.

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    1. I think all my Larousse dictionaries must be somewhere in my daughter's room... But I do have some. And thanks for the recommendations! I don't think that I'll be starting till late in the year, as I have numerous trips and projects staring at me. But I've noted the suggestions! Thank you.

      I think that the last book (decades back) I tried to read in French was "Les Jeux Sont Faits." Definitely did not finish! I've read de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" and liked it (in English, eons ago), so that might be a good choice. I've never read Mme. de Staël.

      When I was in Paris, I picked up a cute but somewhat dumbed-down French translation of "Alice in Wonderland." (Why would you bother to dumb it down? And also a little book about Gustave Moreau that I bought for the pictures. So I have a few things on hand. I must have jettisoned other books in French long ago.

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  8. I would recommend you leave your Larousse in your daughter's room and acquire the big Collins Robert. It has more swank potential.

    I realise I failed to mention French. I've been "doing" French since 1973, latterly literature face-to-face with private teachers. I would never recommend any far-flung foreigner to learn French, lacking the ability to pop over and remind oneself why picking at such a wretchedly complicated language is so desirable. The learning process is concisely defined: One spends six months learning the rules and the rest of one's life learning the exceptions to the rules.

    When I was much more energetic I launched a blog in French, called Gros Calin, in honour of Romain Gary's hilarious novel. It's still there I suppose, its voice ever tinier. Doing the blog was easy, breaking into the hermetic world of French bloggers was far tougher.

    I also wrote a very long essay on the delusion that Shakespeare can be translated into French. It can of course but all you have is an incomplete skeleton of the plot with several important bones missing. I submitted it to that highly intellectual website starting with Q (now defunct) and they rejected it. So I turned it into an even longer post. I'd give you the link but it wouldn't be a friendly act; we all need to conserve our energy in these trying times.

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    1. Discouragement is also useful! I've done about four hours of Duolingo German and will never catch up with my husband, who studied after his surgery, when he was laid up. I doubt that I will pick German, though it would be pleasant to read Rilke and others in their own language.

      Perhaps I should just go back to the Cajun French of my toddlerhood--though I don't recall a bit now! And I am impressed that you would do such a thing as write a blog in French! Did you make friends among French bloggers in the end, or did they snub you in a French style? Or for your style, for that matter!

      Today I am feeling disheartened about all because we have had brave aconite and crocuses and a few Lenten roses, but it snowed all yesterday, and this morning the world is white and pouring more. But as you imply, there is much to do, and I must go and do some of it, forging out in my little boots.

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    2. p. s. You've probably encountered Twain's look at Americans and languages, especially in "Innocents Abroad" and "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country: in English, then in French, then clawed back into a civilized language once more by patient, unremunerated toil."

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    3. I am a great fan of Mark Twain but found to my surprise (from a well-read American) that he's now persona non grata among the US chattering classes. Apparently for using the n-word in Huck. I read Innocents many years ago but haven't seen The Jumping Frog.

      The bigger French supermarkets (hypermarkets) often have extensive paperback sections but a large percentage of the titles are translations from the English. Whodunnits by people like P J Rendell are popular which again surprises me. I'd have thought the Académie Francaise would have condemned the practice.

      Sorry about the aconites and crocuses. You say "little boots". Might they be too small?

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    4. Hah, yes, I must get some big stompers!

      I don't know my whodunnit authors, so that is still a mystery to me... Or is that an alter ego for Ruth Rendell?

      Twain, like many sculptors (though evidently nobody ever, ever thinks about the sculptor and the idea of a work of art when they yank down politically incorrect statues) is indeed in the unacceptable pool. I do remember my long-ago students being shocked by "Huckleberry Finn," but no more than they were shocked by Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man (think that one really turned them upside down!) And it seems to me the decision by Huck that he will go to hell--forever--rather than betray Jim is a rather important one for American literature. Interesting times. Hemingway might be tarred and feathered now for saying that all American literature begins with one books: Huckleberry Finn.

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    5. Two whodunnit authors' names were conflated: Ruth Rendell (as you guessed) and PD James. I feel like the guy who has just completed the Empire State Building, stands back, and discovers the door-knob is the wrong colour. Or, in another era, the Great Pyramid is upside down. Detail can murder you. Aaaarrrghhhh!

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    6. Some of these writers have so many pen names that I was quite willing to believe... I have read one book by each of those, so I should have caught the P. D. as well. But I'm not well read in that genre...

      Reminds me of the way reviewers are always describing writers by marrying (or marring) two other writers together--as, he's like Cormac McCarthy stirred together with J. Franzen and a dash of Danielle Steele! I was once described as the lovechild of Gurganus and Morrison.

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    7. It seems to be part of the US Constitution that every year some school board somewhere shall ban Huckleberry Finn. But it is a stretch to suppose that school boards are made up of "the chattering classes". A large county near Washington, DC, has recently had a school board in which at least a majority had no college degree. And I know a fellow out west, a good man and a landowner, who served on his local school board without having attended college.

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    8. Although it is sad to think that we need to go to college to appreciate a foundation stone of American literature, no? So those who don't go to college oppose Huck. And now those who do go also oppose him.

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    9. Need one go to college to appreciate Hucklebery Finn? I believe that I read it in college, but certainly not as part of the curriculum. Before high school I had read some of Twain's other works, some of which used the words that excite school boards to ban him. Yet even then I knew where his sympathies lay.

      I complain now and then that Americans regard "reductio ad absurdum" as a tool not of inference but of product development. That one of those products could be a purified canon is something I hadn't anticipated, I admit.

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    10. No, certainly not--my comment was just entering in to yours... But of course few young people appear to read at all now.

      In many areas (and English departments) the canon appears to be not just purified but absent. It is an astounding thing. As if young writers of both sexes didn't need to read the best that the dead have to offer us.

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    11. More ...
      http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/05/03/baltimore-museum-makes-room-for-paintings-by-black-female-artists.html

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    12. Warhol was the last transgressive--he broke the avant garde machine, and there was no avant garde after him, though people still march on, thinking that they are "making it new" and "transgressive" when they are nothing of the sort. So I can imagine a museum wanting to unload some post-modern "transgressive" works for a high price before they lose all value in our outrageous, wrong-thinking art market.

      The art market measures in the wrong way. And museums often do too, for that matter. But whole books could be written about that, and I am sleepy! Good night.

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    13. Not that I dislike all postmodern art... By no means! But I don't tend to like what the art market has loved--Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons, the guy who does self-portrait busts with his own frozen blood (rather more daring than the one who makes hers out of soap or chocolate?), Damien Hirst, etc.

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  9. Marly, I should say French since it's my first language and half of my DNA, but I won't. Everyone does French. I'd say Russian since it's the other half of my DNA but I won't because I'm too annoyed with myself for not pursuing it apart from the sound and some words learned from my father. I will say Spanish because it tastes good and rolls so easily on the tongue and also because in America...I just heard a West Side Story chorus in my head...it's a very important language to know. Well, I just like it and the music is great too.

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    1. Now that my children are mostly out of the house (one still in college), I get the chance to try out bits of languages because I can go to conference sites with Michael. And I've tried out a number--they are all interesting. And I've thought about all three of those. You're right; everybody does French, and with a little review, I can get by when we're somewhere French-speaking. The French are nicer about people fumbling with the language than their reputation... I've definitely forgotten my bit of Russian lessons. And Spanish is increasingly important in the states, plus there are heaps of interesting poets and writers (well, also in the others as well.) So it may be Spanish...

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.