Polyglottalia

27 02 2007

Most ‘laypeople’ that I meet are impressed when they get a sense of how many languages I have studied. Unlike Western Europe, Australia is not a land whose citizens are renowned for their polyglotism. Like many people, most of those who I meet are under the impression that learning new languages is difficult and that the more one learns, the smarter one must be. Like most assumptions that people make, this is entirely false; the more languages that one studies, the easier that the acquisition of a new one becomes. It is time to break down a few of the more popular linguistic misconceptions that are out there.

Over the last three years I have studied Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Akkadian and Ge’ez. This statistic is, perhaps, misleading for Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac were the only three that lasted the entire three years. I undertook a year of Akkadian (for my sins) and have only undertaken the equivalent of a year in Ge’ez. I may never get around to studying Akkadian again for, fascinating though it may be, the process of transcribing from cuneiform was a frustrating one for me and I much prefer dealing with alphabetic scripts. I am still studying Ge’ez (which, despite the fact that it is a syllabary, is modelled on an alphabet) and I intend to keep up with the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac for the purposes of my PhD. I have also just started Latin, Greek and Coptic at a different university and am trying to teach myself Quranic Arabic from a grammar by Thackston.

So, why are people impressed? There are nine different languages in the above paragraph and the assumption exists that one who studies, or who has studied, all of them must be nine times more intelligent than the individual who is capable of learning one. This is absolutely ridiculous and, while I appreciate the flattery, it is demonstrably false. For a start, the first five languages in the list are all Semitic. Semitic is a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, delineated by scholars on the basis of the shared syntax and phonological features that exist between its members. Learning three at a time in my first semester was difficult but, if anything, my grades reflected that fact.

I mentioned that the more languages one studies, the easier it gets. This is true in two ways. The first is indicated by my ability now to learn a language (particularly a Semitic language, like Quranic Arabic) from a book. I have become so accustomed to the quirks of Semitic that it is merely a question of putting new forms in the same categories. I understand implicitly how the verb is supposed to be operating and, while different languages do possess different verbal stems (binyanim), the paradigm for one is easily adaptable to another. The second reason as to why learning new languages is now easier for me is more subtle, and rests upon the nature of the new languages that I am learning.

Latin and Greek have a bad reputation. This is a reputation that is fuelled by the recollections of many people, having to study verbal conjugations and noun declensions in their first year of high school. Technically, I did a year of Latin in my first year and I say that this is “technically” so because I learned nothing save the gamut of declensions for ‘table’. Learning grammar as a lad was painful, and this is entirely the fault of the teacher that I had. The fact that this experience was shared by so many means that new paradigms of education need to be developed if we seriously want our children to be proficient in an ancient language (and I know that I do).

Latin and Greek are also, quite possibly, the two most pervasive of the ancient Indo-European languages – or, indeed, of all ancient languages studied in the Western world. Having been used to being one of very few students (sometimes the only student!) in a language class, imagine my shock at finding another forty-fifty in both Latin and Greek at my new university! Hieroglyphics, due to its ‘exotic’ nature, tends to also attract large numbers, but languages like Coptic and Ge’ez are left out in the cold. I can understand this because, for many Christians, Latin and Greek are languages of primary importance (much as a Jew would appreciate Hebrew and Aramaic), and therefore of more pressing concern than the languages of secondary translations. If only interested Jews stopped deriving their education from the very Orthodox and started attending university courses instead! But no matter…

This perspective regarding Latin and Greek was one that was shared by many of our cultural ancestors who, inspired by the linguistic acumen of the Arabs, developed a system of philological analysis to analyse these two languages and compare them with one another. The linguistic terminology in use today was developed for Latin and Greek. I cannot stress this point enough. Today, despite the fact that all languages come under its microscopic gaze, its terms work best with those two particular examples from the Indo-European family. This is not to say that they do not work well with, say, Semitic, but that their usage in another language group has necessitated the delineation of a whole plethora of sub-categories.

For me, learning Semitic languages first and foremost, I have become so used to viewing the categories as labels that are being appended to the forms that I have missed the fact that they are actually tailor-made categories. Latin and Greek, by comparison, are a doddle! The categories not only fit around the forms perfectly, they were tailor-made for those forms! Anybody who finds Latin and Greek difficult to learn is invited to please spend some time studying languages from another language family. I realise, of course, that I have only just started these two classes (although I did do a semester of Latin at the Centre for Continuing Education, 2005, and have already looked ahead in my Greek grammar), but I expect my observations to hold true by their very nature. Were the forefathers of linguistic study to have been specialists in Hebrew and Aramaic then I’ve no doubt that I would have laughed my way through the first three years of university while all the Greek and Latin students scratched their heads.

Coptic, on the other hand, is not Indo-European and so is worth mentioning separately. An Afro-Asiatic language, like Semitic, Coptic is effectively a heavily Grecian modification of Late Egyptian and Demotic. The class is predictably small, and satisfyingly post-graduate. I am one of two students there doing a PhD and there are another two who are also doing an MA. The final fellow, an older chap, has completed his MA already and is merely learning for his own edification. Unlike my classes in Latin and Greek, it is (thankfully) not necessary for my lecturer to have to devote time to explaining concepts like “person” and “aspect”. What is more, the size of the class ensures that we receive individual attention: a phenomenon missed by many students of the more popular languages.

When people indicate their amazement at the number of languages that I study (which happens so often that I tend to shy away from divulging them), the only thing that I am able to do is weakly assure them that it becomes a whole lot easier as experience is gained. It is a shame that we are living in a society where one can be astounded at that sort of thing. It’s not rocket-science, people: it’s language. It’s actually quite easy.

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9 responses

27 02 2007
Sunny Schomaker

I will grant you that people get overly impressed with “knowing” languages, but I think that it is all the prescriptivist bullying out there (I am training to be a linguist, and one of the first things you learn is to check your rules by the door). Maybe the linguists and language teachers of the world need to start a PR campaign to encourage second (and third and fourth…) language acquistion.

28 02 2007
Joel Nothman

I would say Australia is one of the most monolingual countries around. Even in large chunks of North America there is large persuasion to learn Spanish, or French. This probably adds greatly to the difficulty… And then there’s the fact that you are learning a hell of a lot of languages at the same time =)

28 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Sunny: I agree, whether or not you meant the suggestion literally! It would be a great idea to find a way of encouraging language-learning in kids, especially now that schools are dropping the systematic study of Greek and Latin altogether, in favour of ‘more important’ things. I think that coming out of school with a knowledge of the stories of the Bible and the stories of Homer, and being able to read both!, would be wonderful.

Joel: Really! Australia is more monolingual than Nth America? That bit does surprise me, but I can take your word for it considering where you are! I don’t think that learning languages simultaneously, though, should make them any more difficult. You know as well as I do how easy it all becomes once you’re immersed in it. And, of course, three of them are introductory first-semester courses…

28 02 2007
Daniel

Predictably small, and satisfyingly post-graduate. Coptic. Coming to a linguaphile location near you.

3 03 2007
e-kvetcher

The funny thing about language is that it really is very different from learning calculus or organic chemistry, but so many people don’t realize it. It just has to do with the fact that your brain starts shutting down in terms of easy of language acquisition somewhere around puberty (Ironically, that is the age where most kids start learning a foreign language in school). Up until then, pretty much anyone can pick up a foreign language through immersion.

This is beginning to sound like I’m lecturing, but really just intended as a comment. Having spoken Russian as my native language I often have people react with amazement when they find out that I can speak it fluently…

3 03 2007
Conrad

Still, Latin and Greek have their difficulties too. . . the verb-system of Greek, for instance, is a bloody bitch. A lot of the Latin grammar we learn was not at all accepted by the ancients. Varro says things about Latin tenses that your average 1800 schoolmaster would find a bit odd. And if you think Hebrew is hard. . . try learning Chinese! You’d having trouble just using the dictionary.

Also, there is a difference between studying Akkadian, Ge’ez etc., and being fluent in them. I can pick up a Spanish paper and get the gist of it, without having taken a minute of Spanish–but I couldn’t converse in it, or read serious literature. There’s a tendency by laymen to assume that if you have the one level, you have the latter.

3 03 2007
Simon Holloway

You are quite correct and I am not unaware of the fact that studying Hebrew for such a length of time has familiarised me with so many of the tricky little subtleties of the language, while my experience with Greek and Latin has (necessarily) been markedly more superficial. My statements are general ones and, while I expect them to hold true in a general sense, I also look forward to being pleasantly inundated by difficulties in my new languages too!

As for your second sentiment, I couldn’t agree more. People also seem to think that I can “speak” these languages, despite the fact that the only other people to ever speak them all assumed room temperature over a thousand years ago. Makes for a very one-sided conversation…

3 03 2007
Conrad

Or, as they call it in theological circles, a “Great Conversation”!

11 04 2007
Ghil'ad

Have you studied both Hebrew and Israeli or Hebrew tout court? A lovely blog, obiter dictum!

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