Last week I had a discussion with a young woman, a master’s student, who was TAing an undergraduate French class. She found that her students were struggling, and that using a variety of pedagogical techniques wasn’t yielding better “results.” She and I had our differences in terms of educational ideas: she was in favor of an immersion- and speech-based approach; I firmly believe that grammar must be the backbone of any rigorous linguistic education. While our encounter didn’t convert me (or her, for that matter), it did get me thinking about the value of a few particular experiences I have had with language.
Like most American children, I studied Spanish for most of my elementary, middle, and high school years. I’ve taken German through college, which was improved by visiting both Germany and Austria for relatively extended periods of time. My Middle English is virtually fluent (for reading anyway). I’ve also taken Latin, Old English, and Old Norse. I enjoy languages, and I’ve experienced multiple approaches to learning them.
Among the specific experiences that came to mind was my beginning to read the Aeneid in Latin. The text is significantly shorter in the original than it is in English, which uses helping verbs to form larger, more complex verbal constructions. Hence, the 1st-person, singular, pluperfect, passive, subjunctive of the verb “to ask” is “I would have been asked.” In Latin, it reads, “petitus essem.” The famous opening of the text provides another example. The narrator begins: “arma virumque cano,” or “I sing of arms and a man.” Language education, or language work in general, is thus not a simple matter of one-to-one translation. It’s an engagement with a different way of experiencing, and expressing the experience of, the world.
Each time I choose to study a new language I not only gain access to the cultural tropes of that people and their place in history, but I also enter their “cultural mindset,” their Weltanschauung. Even that word, “Weltanschauung,” is essentially just a couple words smashed together: “Welt” (world) and “Anschauung” (assumption, view). “Anschauung” is itself a compound of the prefix “an,” which has a variety of meanings, and a substantive form of the verb “shauen,” meaning “to look.” In English like in German, we are fortunate to be able to do the same thing, that is to compound lots of words and prefixes to form complex terms, but that is not the case for all languages. In fact, we used to be able to do it even more robustly when our language was called Old English. Take the famous (well, among Anglo-Saxonists) word, “modcearig.” It comes from the poem The Wanderer, and means something like “spirit-weary.” I say “something like” because its semantic ambiguity is part of its beauty.
Teaching and acquiring new modes of expression has a supreme importance, especially in an increasingly global world but also in a world in which we would like to remain in dialogue with our past. Language looks both backward and forward. We may never fully understand Virgil, but learning his native tongue is the first step toward true dialogue. The same goes for reading The Wanderer.
Language opens up the world, not merely instrumentally, but spiritually.