learning a new language

 

 

I have begun studying German.

I knew a smattering of German already.

I was motivated to take the course from my love of studying foreign languages. And to learn a language which is so important in Western culture and scholarship, and in music. I have recently heard performances of outstanding vocal works with a libretto or lyrics in German by composers such as Haydn, Brahms, Hindemith, and Franz Schreker.

I am in my fifth or sixth week of an introductory German course at a language school in Manhattan. A very small class, which is great. A great teacher …. Peter, German; he lives in Manhattan now.

 

 

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As I and my fellow students were laboring over reading sentences out loud yesterday, trying to pronounce the German words, it called to mind for me what it was like learning to read in the first grade. Reading out loud (in the first grade) in small groups (“reading circles”) and laboring to sound out the words on the page, in our reader, Dick and Jane. Plus phonics instruction, so tedious, as I recall it being then.

I remember when I learned to read; from one moment to the next I moved on from slowly spelling out the words to reading fluently and my life changed forever! — comment by Elisabeth van der Meer, on my post about reading, October 21, 2019

I had a similar experience struggling to learn and sound out the Russian alphabet and to read from the printed page (in Russian) in an introductory Russian class in my sophomore year at Brandeis University.

 

 

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In a language course, especially an introductory one, the teacher is everything. I have had some outstanding language teachers, such as Miss McCauley for French (in high school) and Luciana de Ames, a Spanish instructor at Columbia University.

And Walter Stock, in a Gaelic course at the Gaelic Society of New York.

In the late 1960’s, I saw an advertisement in the Village Voice for Irish (Gaelic) courses at the Gaelic Society in Manhattan. To the question, why study such a language, one that I would never need to use, I would have answered (and would still), why not? A language is a window into a culture. And, the grammatical or linguistic aspects of different languages have always fascinated me. To study a Celtic language! The Celtic languages are related distantly to a broader hypothesized family of languages including our own.

Mr. Stock would begin by going around the class, saying, “Dia duit” (hello) to each of us. He had us involved and enthused. He was a born language teacher.

After a few weeks, Mr. Stock, to my profound disappointment, had to leave because of professional commitments. The class was taken over by an Irish woman who lacked pedagogical skills. I quit after one class with her. She began the class by telling us to open our books. Then, sitting at a desk at the front of the room, she read from exercises in the book with the class presumably following. There was no interaction or class participation. Mr. Stock, her opposite as a teacher, not only got us speaking Irish from the outset, he was knowledgeable about languages and linguistics and was always pointing out interesting linguistic features and similarities between Irish and other languages. Peter, our current German teacher, does the same thing.

I still have my two Gaelic textbooks.

 

 

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It is so hands on (foreign language instruction). It reminds me of a subject like math. You have to make sure that the class does not get lost. Everything is progressive. Step by step, incremental. Interaction in the class is important. So that students in a language course can practice and so that everyone is keeping up. Or, in a math class, say. to make sure the material was understood and pupils can do the problems.

It’s not like a history or sociology or class, say, where one can skip a lecture or two.

The teaching style of my high school mathematics teacher, Mr. Badoian, seemed at times too “authoritarian” or top down. As if he were a football coach making us run endless drills. But I see now (and Mr. Badoain was a great teacher) that there was no other way. It was a lot different than my English class.

By the way, my father was a piano teacher. It was a lifetime occupation. I wonder how all of this applies to him. Teaching a musical instrument must involve similar challenges and demands.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 3, 2019

 

 

 

Progress in Irish.jpg

 

 

 

buntus cainte.jpg

Buntús Cainte means something (literally) like Beginning Speech (or a language primer).

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “learning a new language

  1. Chuck Callan

    Hi Roger:
    This is Chuck Callan C’78. How nice to read of your memories of Luciana de Ames. I took her second year Spanish class during my freshman year. Got an A+. Ran across her once on 110th street where she lived with her family. She was struggling to carry home a bunch of groceries. I helped her and I thought I would die from her beauty.

  2. Roger W. Smith Post author

    Thanks for this comment, Chuck. I really appreciated and enjoyed it. Luciana gave me an A+ too, for both semesters of introductory Spanish. She was a great teacher as well as being beautiful and totally unaffected. I tried hard to find out where she is now (I thought perhaps at some university) on the internet — I wanted to share my post with her. No luck. I wrote an evaluation of her that got quoted in the Columbia students’ (student produced) course guide. I went on to study other languages and a couple years ago got to Spain, where I went to the town of Moguer and visited Juan Ramón Jiménez’s house, which is now a museum. I progressed pretty far in Spanish at Columbia. One of my classmates in advanced Spanish grammar was Christopher Maurer, who became a professor of Spanish at Boston University and has translated Garcia Lorca and Jiménez. Ms. de Ames was one of the best foreign language teachers I ever had, rivaled only by my high school French teacher.

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