Saturday, September 5, 2009

Language Makes Us Human

Some of my students are not, to put it mildly, thrilled about taking French.

Learning a new language is difficult, it's frustrating, and it makes you want to throw reference materials at the wall, howling about subjects, and objects, and verbs, and how absolutely infuriating it is to not know what someone is saying to you, or how to answer back.

My response to my students is to tell them that learning a language opens doors. It changes the way you see the world, it makes you a better, richer person who can look at things differently, who understands things on a deeper level.

Then, when that doesn't work, I tell them that they have no choice, and they need to suck it up.

For a long time, I wondered if it was just me, if I was the only one who felt this way about words, and language; the only one who cared this much about learning how to communicate in a different tongue. Then I picked up Kate Grenville's book The Lieutenant.

The book is about a young man, an astronomer in the British Marines, who goes along with the First Fleet in 1787 to New South Wales. While there, he forms a friendship with a young aboriginal girl named Tagaran and begins to learn the language of the Cadigal people.

And then, as they say, everything changed.

He had thought himself superior to Silk [another soldier], who was innocent and smug in his belief that there was a precise unambiguous equivalence between words, and that one could exchange them as one might trade a Spanish dollar for two shillings and five pence. Now he saw that he had done the same. He had made these lists of verbs, these alphabets, these pages stretched like a net: other inflexions of the same verb.

But learning the Sydney tongue was not like that. Both the language and the act of learning had burst out of the boundaries he had tried to put around them. Proof of that was what he had just done. The press of the unknown had made him invent a new language, even newer to him than the Cadigal tongue: the language of doubt, the language that was prepared to admit I am not sure.

What he had not learned from Latin or Greek he was learning from the people of New South Wales. It was this: you did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you. His friendship with Tagaran was not a list of objects, or the words for things eaten or not eaten, thrown or not thrown. It was the slow constructing of the map of a relationship.

The names of things, if you truly wanted to understand them, were as much about the spaces between the words are they were about the words themselves. Learning a language was not a matter of joining any two points with a line. It was a leap into the other.

To understand the movements of the celestial bodies, it was necessary to leave behind everything you thought you knew. Until you could put yourself at some point beyond your own world, looking back at it, you would never see how everything worked together.

This is what I try to say to my students. I expect that they're too young, that all they see right now is the brick wall of a foreign language in front of them. I hope that one day they see what the narrator in this book sees: how language connects us as nothing else can, and how making that leap into the other means that we are never, ever the same again.

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