Thursday, July 9, 2009

On language learning textbooks

Over the years, I've accumulated a decent library of world language textbooks and readers. Even those I do not get around to studying usually yield some benefit - I can get a feel for the sound and structure of each language with only a few hours of reading, and such kernels of knowledge can often serve as bridges and conversation-starters with native speakers. And then there is the physical presence of the books: the diversity of the languages represented is a reminder of all the things I hope to study and places I hope to travel.

I have also learned something from the texts about the many ways foreign languages can be taught and how teaching methods have changed over time. The improvement in recording technologies has revolutionized language learning; it is difficult to imagine, but many earlier students of world languages had to study without ever hearing their target language spoken. Today, the primary (and, in my experience, most effective) method of instruction is to have the student listen to and memorize conversations carried on by native speakers in various contexts (the train station, the post office, the dinner table, etc.). Grammar is learned intuitively; one comes to understand the workings of the past tense by hearing a voice actor discuss his or her day at work. It’s a long way from the older methods, still used in the most widely disseminated Latin and Greek textbooks (Wheelock’s and Mastronarde’s), of memorizing paradigm after paradigm and carrying out drill after drill.

Language textbooks are invariably infused with knowledge of the cultures where the language is spoken. For instance, Latin is learned through readings about the orations of senators and the deeds of heroes and gods; Norwegian is learned by listening in on the conversation of tourists in Oslo who are admiring the sculptures in the Frognerparken; and Italian is learned through texts about the history of coffee or the many courses of an Italian dinner. Most dialogues in contemporary language textbooks have settings - some are universal, but many are specific to a particular time and place. It’s hard to imagine an elementary Russian textbook that does not teach the reader how to ask for directions to Red Square.

The experience of learning how to find one’s way around the Kremlin, and “asking” directions during the lulls on the audio track provided for that purpose, with soft voices and the sound of traffic in the background to add authenticity, is qualitatively different from the experience of reading about Red Square in a history book or travel guide. In secondhand accounts, the reader is one more step removed from the experience of physically being in Moscow. The language learner, however, can to some extent simulate that experience. And if one’s attitude when reading secondhand accounts of another place’s history and culture is one of looking upon a culture from “above,” one’s attitude as a language learner is much more humble. Even the cows of ancient Greece understand Attic Greek better than we ever will, someone once quipped. There is some truth to that. The student of languages is a student in the fullest sense of the word; his highest aspiration is to speak a language as well as a native speaker - any native speaker, regardless of age or station. He may believe, consciously or not, that there individuals in his home culture with whom he has nothing to discuss and from whom he has nothing to learn - but abroad he is stripped of that elitist attitude, because everyone reads, writes, and speaks better than him.

I continue to learn a lot and derive a great deal of pleasure from my library of language textbooks, and I’ve become a collector almost by accident; the collection is a byproduct of two of the things I love most: languages and books. By letting go of the dream of ever mastering all the languages represented in my collection, I have given myself a freer hand to purchase the old Russian text with “Printed in the Soviet Union” stamped in red ink on the frontispiece, and the grossly outdated handbook of Japanese grammar written to assist American servicepeople in the postwar occupation of Japan. Even if these are all but useless as instruments of language study, they serve a different purpose by providing that pleasure of owning something rare that is the province and privilege of the collector.