Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A stack of books

The languages you've studied are like a stack of books. This will be a short post. I'm preparing my thoughts about the five years I spent learning Latin.

from a series I shot ages ago
I chatted yesterday with a certain coworker for the first time. Well, for the first time in depth or at length or whatever, and she is learning OLD NORSE! It was exciting to know that I'm not the only one that does that kind of thing. I had a similar experience to hers in my brief but exciting study of Inuit (Inuktitut). Our sentiments were the same. 
2. Thought it was interesting, and was curious enough to learn. 
3. Devoured what was there and wanted more. 
4. Memorized some phrases, tried to speak to oneself when at all possible. 
5. Obviously no one to speak with (old Norse or Inuit, but probably still more speakers of Inuit than Old Norse, even though Icelandic is probably usefully similar), and sure as hell not any Inuit speakers in Taiwan. 
6. Came to the realization that the course of study was interesting, somewhat fruitful, fun, but ultimately useless due to a lack of (even poor) learning content and just as little chance to speak in real life. 
And that was it. There isn't a single word I can currently think of from all my studies of Inuit, because while I wrote down some interesting words and phrases, it came down mostly to grammar. Inuit grammar is fascinating, and the vocabulary and phrases I learned were mostly just
vehicles for explaining the grammar and showing how it worked. 
I was kind of thrilled to have met someone who has undertaken a study of a language that is as futile and impractical and left-field as I have, and talking about Altaic theory and everything else. Geeked out a bit, but it reminded me of the way I think of storing information. 
If you have a stack of magazines on a table or a bookshelf with the intent to read them all eventually, a few things happen. Number one, you often don't read them all. If you keep coming back to a few of them over and over, the most-used ones stay on the top, and the ones that aren't opened as frequently slowly drift to the bottom of that stack. (The same thing happens with my piles of folded clothes, this mysterious sorting and shifting process.) 
That doesn't mean the magazines at the bottom are gone, per se, but in a stack, or even worse, a box, you may have to hunt for them. 
Language is the same. We'll get around to talking about the Pimsleur method later, but that process of filtering and storing something in the long-term memory is important, and it's with increasingly longer intervals that we get better at recall. If my language studies consist of, or rather I guess, are motivated by the need to communicate with a person in a language (arguably a more useful or practical one), I will spend a few good weeks violently studying and memorizing sentences, vocabulary, questions and potential answers to potential questions. 
Years ago I remember doing this with Swahili. I had a few notecards of words, phrases, some charts, and kept them in my apron at work (I was a waiter then; this was like ten years ago). Between tables or when I had a second, I'd flip through them and rehearse different iterations or orders or possible ways the conversation could go. If I thought of something else I might need, I'd write it down, on a card, a receipt, a napkin, my arm. This was long before the day of the iPhone, so that wasn't an option. For those brief few weeks, I could hold a somewhat limited but rather natural sounding conversation in Swahili, assuming it followed one of my preconceived outlines of the information I'd prepared. Even then, I had a backup plan, a few "sorry, I don't understand" or "what does that mean?" Or "could you write that down?" So I was almost never backed into a corner. I also accumulated a stack of notes in other people's languages and handwriting. 
But when was the last time I had to speak in Swahili? About ten years ago. Can I speak a word of it now? Absolutely not. But I remember how to read it, as well as a few interesting bits of grammar or syntax. It has sunk to the bottom of my "stack," but if I needed it, I could dig it up. That is less the case with Inuit, but you get the idea. 
The success of acquiring Chinese fluency has had its consequences though, and my entire "stack" has been set aside almost completely. And that's sad. 
But if you've ever been in that situation before and had to dig something up, it's comforting to know that it's still there, it's just at the bottom. You'll have to do some digging, but it still isn't nearly as hard as starting all over again. It's also nearly impossible to keep that many languages in your rotation if you don't live in an environment where you can use them. 
And the start of my "stack" of figurative languages and physical notebooks all began with Latin. And we'll get to that on Friday. 

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