Category Archives: foreign language study

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

 

 

 

 

Подушка какая Мягкая.

 

 

Подушка какая Мягкая.

Podushka kakaya Myagkaya.

What a soft pillow.

 

 

Russian is such a beautiful language euphonically, as Professor John E. Malmstad pointed out in an introductory Russian course I took at Columbia University. (Professor Malmstad was co-translator of the symbolist novel Petersburg by Andrei Bely.)

I took both French and Spanish as a high school and college student. I studied both intensively.

It was fun to compare the two Romance languages, both similar in their origins and vocabulary while at the same time (as is always the case with languages) both unique; distinct. Like persons, you like and admire, each one, for the things that make them unique.

It seems to me that Spanish is closer to the original Latin than French. I took two years of Latin in high school. I found Spanish grammar easy to learn.

A notable feature of studying Spanish to me was that spelling is very regular and simple. There are hardly any exceptions. A consonant, for example is either doubled or it is not – doesn’t change for different words.

Which brings us (to quote James Joyce) by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Russian. Russian is very similar to Spanish with respect to pronunciation. Spelling is entirely regular.

And, a notable, major feature of both languages — connected or related to regularity of spelling — is that a given word and spelling dictate the pronunciation. There are no exceptions. Words in both Spanish and Russian are pronounced exactly as they are spelled.

Every language has its own sound, sonority, a unique cadence and rhythm which, once you begin to learn the language, is music to the ear. Now you can “hear” the language, which the untutored can’t.

The musicality of spoken Russian, including the simplest phrases, is undeniable.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2018

 

when knowledge (and learning) can prove to be useful; the pleasures of pedantry

 

 

“We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

 

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I am reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay on walking.

From a recent exhibit at the Morgan Library, I learned that Thoreau, who some moderns may think of as a sort of proto hippie, was very studious and had a very good education in classical and modern languages.

In his walking essay, Thoreau uses the Latin phrase ambulator nascitur, non fit.

After a moment’s hesitation, the meaning came to me: the walker is born, not made.

A curious person as he goes through life acquires all sorts of knowledge. Someone once remarked to me that it is very pleasurable to be able every now and then to USE those scraps of learning.

It was pleasurable to me to think I have retained a little bit of my high school Latin from over 50 years ago, including present passive verb endings.

Back in my high school days I was in a bus station in Boston once, using the men’s room. Some French sailors wearing funny hats with tassels were there too. They were in high spirits. They were teasing one another, joking and laughing. They couldn’t stop laughing. One jest led to another.

They noticed me and seemed friendly. We exchanged glances. I thought, I’m taking French. I can come up with something to say to them. I said, “Vous êtes de la marine française?” They nodded with smiles and seemed to be pleasantly surprised that an American teenager was speaking French to them.

It was very edifying to actually be using the French I had been learning out of a textbook.

 


–Roger W. Smith

September 30, 2017

 

 

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AN UPDATE

 

On Friday, March 2, riding on the subway, I saw the following advertisement:

 

“LE SALVÉ LA VIDA A MI AMIGA”

Encontré a mi amiga desplomada en la cama. Se estaba poniendo azul y no podía respirar. Corrí a buscar mi naloxana y se la dí. Creí que estaba muerta. Cuando volvió en si, no sabía lo que había pasado ni por qué yo estaba llorando. Me alegro de haber tenido naloxona; le dio una segunda oportunidad.

La NALOXONA es un medicamento de emergencia que evita la muerte por sobredosis de analgésicos recetadas y heroína.

 

 

imageedit_1_2395197600

 

I was very pleased with myself in that I understood it completely, every word, in Spanish.

It seemed to me again that a little learning can be a good thing.

 

 

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I have been reading the charming novel Good-bye Mr. Chips (1934) by James Hilton. The following passage struck me:

A pleasant, placid life, at Mrs. Wickett’s. He had no worries; his pension was adequate, and there was a little money saved up besides. He could afford everything and anything he wanted. His room was furnished simply and with school­masterly taste: a few bookshelves and sporting trophies; a mantelpiece crowded with fixture cards and signed photographs of boys and men; a worn Turkey carpet; big easy-chairs; pictures on the wall of the Acropolis and the Forum. Nearly everything had come out of his old house­master’s room in School House. The books were chiefly classical, the classics having been his subject; there was, however, a seasoning of history and belles-lettres. There was also a bottom shelf piled up with cheap editions of detective novels. Chips enjoyed these. Sometimes he took down Virgil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French. He was not, despite his long years of assiduous teaching, a very profound classical scholar; indeed, he thought of Latin and Greek far more as dead languages from which English gentlemen ought to know a few quotations than as living tongues that had ever been spoken by living people. He liked those short leading articles in the Times that introduced a few tags that he recognized. To be among the dwindling number of people who understood such things was to him a kind of secret and valued freemasonry [italics added]; it represented, he felt, one of the chief benefits to be derived from a classical education.

Reminded me of the pleasure I have always taken — when boning up on literature or classical music, doing research, traveling watching films, etc. — in the knowledge I have obtained of several foreign languages, without having mastered any of them.

Know what I mean?

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 5, 2018

Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble

 

 

On Thursday, November 16, 2017, I heard a performance at Carnegie Hall of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K. 428 by the Tetzlaff Quartet. Mozart’s K. 428 is one of his Haydn Quartets, a set of six string quartets that he dedicated to Joseph Haydn.

It is a flawless work. It exemplifies Mozart’s genius. It also brought to mind a sentence in my first-year Russian textbook — written by a famed Slavicist and foreign language teacher, Alexander L. Lipson — which was as follows: “Как и Моцарт, Пушкин написал только шедевры” (Kak i Motsart, Pushkin napisal tol’ko shedevry. Like Mozart, Pushkin wrote only masterpieces.)

The Russian word for masterpieces, shedevry, is the same as and is derived from the French. (Makes me think of the French used by the aristocracy in War and Peace.)

The Mozart piece brought to mind the comparison between Mozart and Pushkin made in the textbook from my college Russian course, and the course itself.

 

 

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I was eager and thrilled to be able to take introductory Russian in my sophomore year at Brandeis University. The course was taught by Charles E. Gribble. Professor Gribble, who held a doctorate from Harvard, began his teaching career at Brandeis. When I took the course with him, he was in his late twenties. At that time, Professor Gribble was in the preliminary phase of founding an important publishing house for Slavicists: Slavica Publishers. He was the firm’s editor for thirty years.

I was motivated to study Russian for several reasons:

I had discovered the works of the Russian émigré scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin in my senior year in high school. I was totally engrossed in books of his such as Leaves from a Russian Diary. This led to a fascination on my part with Russian culture.

At the time, the Soviet Union was regarded with outright hostility, fear, and suspicion. Being by nature a contrarian, I tended to think differently. Politics aside, I saw, as did Sorokin (to quote from one of his works), “an essential similarity or congeniality in a number of important psychological, cultural, and social values” between the USA and the USSR: vast territories with all that implies (such as various climates, topography, and regional characteristics); rich natural and human resources; major cultural and urban centers; the fact that both countries were world powers; and so on. I was a sort of Slavophil without knowing it.

Russia as I imagined it was a country with vast expanses like us and a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnic groups and with a rich, continually growing culture, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whom at this stage of my educational development I had not yet read) and composers such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich (whose works I had already become acquainted with and admired — in fact, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony almost in and of its itself made me a Slavophil). Just like America, Russia was huge, diverse, all encompassing, culturally fertile; and with a vibrant economy. And, I felt intuitively, a rich language.

 

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My previous language study had consisted of a year or two of French in junior high school (a complete waste); four years of high school French, on the basis of which I was placed into third year French at Brandeis University; and two years of high school Latin. Romance languages.

It was a thrill for me to be studying a Slavic language and one with a different alphabet.

Learning the Cyrillic alphabet, in both cursive and print form, was a stumbling block for me, a hurdle to be overcome. It often felt like I was back in the first grade learning my letters and being taught to sound out words phonetically.

Our professor, Charles Gribble, knew the author of the textbook we used, Alexander Lipson, personally. Lipson taught at either MIT or Harvard; I forget which.

Lipson’s first year Russian textbook was in developmental form; it hadn’t yet been published. It consisted of pages that had been copied and bound, but not in book form. Without covers.

It was a clever and entertaining text, besides being well conceived from a pedagogical standpoint.

I was fascinated to find that Russian had cases — six of them — like Latin. (I love studying grammar and cannot understand why modern day self-appointed language “experts,” as they style themselves, want to emend or simplify, essentially emasculate — in the name of political correctness or conforming to their misguided, benighted theories of how language and English composition should be taught — language instruction. See Addendum below.)

 

 

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The genitive case (possessive) in Russia was introduced early, as follows. There would be an entertaining reading with a lot of words ending in –ого (-ogo), indicating the Russian form for a noun such as doctor’s used in a phrase such as “the doctor’s office.” Even Russian proper nouns have a possessive form, so that “Tolstoy’s house” becomes “Дом Толстого” (dom Tolstogo).

In the next or a subsequent chapter of Lipson’s textbook, the genitive case and its usage and endings would be formally introduced and explained. Since one already had a rudimentary familiarity with it in the previously encountered reading, one assimilated the grammar point with ease. This is sound pedagogy. It’s how we learn the grammar of our native language.

 

 

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Despite being motivated, I had difficulty with the course.

Some of the students had already taken Russian in high school, which, in the case of a language like Russian with a steep learning curve, put me at a competitive disadvantage, so to speak.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I tried very hard. I spent hours in the language lab, but — despite my best efforts — I always seemed to be a couple of lessons behind the rest of the class.

Professor Gribble said he would take into account class attendance and effort in grading. He kept his word. I got D on practically every quiz and exam. My final grade for the 6 credit course was C.

I have always had a very high aptitude for foreign languages. In French and Latin classes in high school, I was usually (but not always) the best student in the class. The same was the case when I took Spanish as a postgraduate student at Columbia University.

So how does one account of my struggles with introductory Russian? My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., had an explanation. He regarded it as a case of what one might call “learning inhibition.” When a student feels uncomfortable with the classroom setting and the instructor. This was true of my experience with Professor Gribble. Strangely enough, he was actually a good guy. I went to a web site containing his obituary at

https://slavic.osu.edu/news/memoriam-charles-edward-gribble-1936-2016

and it was clear that this was the case. (The obituary mentions his concern for and rapport with students.) In the following year (I did not enroll for second year Russian), I would occasionally run into Professor Gribble in the snack bar. He was always pleasant and seemed interested in how I was doing.

 

 

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Alexander Lipson died in 1980 at the age of fifty-one. He was the author of a three part textbook, A Russian Course, which in its prototype/preliminary form, we had used as our text in Professor Gribble’s course.

In a review published in The Slavic and East European Journal of the book Alexander Lipson in Memoriam (1994), Catherine V. Chvany refers to Lipson as follows:

… language pedagogue extraordinaire, maverick entrepreneur, linguist’s linguist, travel tour designer, and enfant terrible. Though Lipson never completed his own Ph.D., members of his now gray-haired cohort have claimed in my hearing they learned more from Alex Lipson — about language, about Slavic, and about teaching — than from any of their professors.

She also notes “Lipson’s broad interests [which reflected] Lipson’s profound if irreverent knowledge of Russian literature and culture.” One could sense this in the text of his we used, which was much more fun and informative than most language textbooks. And, often, downright funny.

For instance, I will never forget how Chapter One began:

Хулиганы сидят в парке весь день и курят. (Khuligany sidyat v parke ves’ den’ i kuryat; Hooligans sit in the park all day and smoke.)

This was a mockery of Soviet attitudes towards deadbeats.

Another chapter had a reading devoted to the topic of навозные мухи (navoznyye mukhi): manure flies. This was a satire on life on the Soviet колхоз (kolkhoz; collective farm). After this chapter, the Russian word for fly, муха (muka), was permanently implanted in my mind.

Then, there was the aforementioned chapter with a reading on Pushkin. It included a short poem by Pushkin, “Ты и Вы” (“Thou and “You,” 1828) that was accessible to first year students and from which I got a feeling for the enchanting musicality and the sensuality and power of Pushkin’s verse.

 

Пустое вы сердечным ты
Она, обмолвясь, заменила
И все счастливые мечты
В душе влюбленной возбудила.
Пред ней задумчиво стою,
Свести очей с нее нет силы;
И говорю ей: как вы милы!
И мыслю: как тебя люблю!

 

Pustoye “Vy” serdechnym “Ty”
Ona, obmolvyas’, zamenila
I vse schastlivyye mechty
V dushe vlyublennoy vozbudila.
Pred ney zadumchivo stoyu,
Svesti ochey s neye net sily;
I govoryu yey: kak vy mily!
I myslyu: kak tebya lyublyu!

 

She substituted,
by a chance,
For empty “you” — the gentle “thou”;
And all my happy dreams, at once,
In loving heart again resound.
In bliss and silence do I stay,
Unable to maintain my role:
“Oh, how sweet you are!” I say —
“How I love thee!” says my soul.

 

Russian — as with the French tu and vous or Spanish tu and usted — has two forms (formal and familiar) of the second person pronoun.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 18, 2017

 

 

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Addendum :

 

The 1960’s, a learned friend of mine once opined, was the Golden Era of American education. I would not dispute this. I experienced it in English and history courses, in foreign language courses, and in mathematics instruction. To get an idea of how low conceptions of foreign language pedagogy have sunk since Alexander Lipson’s time, one might take a look at the following article:

“Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy,” by Carmel McCoubrey, op-ed, The New York Times, November 16, 2017

 

first draft of my Russian essay on Tolstoy (and how it came to be written)

 

 

biographical sketch of Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Posted here is a handwritten student paper by me, written in Russian, about Leo Tolstoy.

It was written by me for a Russian course at New York University.

The way this came about was as follows.

I was taking a noncredit course in Russian at NYU — I believe it was in 1977. I had enrolled for advanced Russian. I was underqualified to take the course, having so far completed only first year Russian. But, I wanted to be challenged. I had done some extra studying of the language on my own.

I seemed to be the weakest student in the class. Our instructor, a Russian woman who was an adjunct professor, commented after a few classes that I didn’t belong in the class.

I was a Slavophile and a big fan of Tolstoy, among other Russian writers. One evening, our instructor was discussing Tolstoy briefly. She made the suggestion, off the top of her head, that perhaps someone in the class would like to write an essay on Tolstoy.

No one volunteered, so I raised my hand. It was clear that she did not think I should or could do it, but she begrudgingly agreed, by default, to let me.

In the next class session, I read my essay, which was twelve pages long, handwritten on loose leaf paper. (See downloadable PDF file, above.)

At the end of my presentation, the instructor said– maintained adamantly — that I must have copied the essay from somewhere.

No, I insisted, I had written it myself. I said to her in Russian,”Я сам написал” (Ya sam napisal),” meaning “I wrote it myself.” This was slightly incorrect. The correct Russian is Я написал это сам: Ya [I] napisal [wrote] eto [it] sam [myself]. (Note the Russian word sam, meaning myself. It is a root of the Russian word samizdat, which means self publishing.)

She still didn’t believe me. She said that in the next class I should present the essay again, this time without reading from my written text. I’m sure she thought she had me!

The day of the next class arrived. It was in the evening. I got to NYU about a half an hour early and took a stroll in Washington Square Park. I had not prepared, had not memorized the essay!

I walked in circles around the park for a half an hour or so with the handwritten essay in my hand. I was reading and reciting it to myself. I found that it was not hard to memorize. I think this was because of the fact that I had put such effort into writing it, had slaved over it with an English-Russian dictionary close at hand. I remembered stuff from having drafted it.

After a while, I said to myself: I’ve got it. I can do it.

I went to the class and recited the essay word for word off the top of my head, without reading from my paper.

I think the professor was flabbergasted; certainly, she was surprised.

To be honest, I myself was surprised that I could do it.

 

 

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I have posted a revised version of my essay, typewritten in Cyrillic characters, on this blog:

Roger W. Smith, “биографический очерк Льва Николаевича Толстого” (Biographical Sketch of Leo Tolstoy)

It can be accessed through the category “Tolstoy”: on this blog.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     May 2016

 

my paper on “Platero y yo”; Luciana de Ames’s Spanish class

 

 

paper on ‘Platero y yo’ (in Spanish)

 

 

The short paper on the prose poem Platero y yo (Platero and I) by the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez — it amounts to an appréciation — that I have posted here (downloadable file above) was written by me in an introductory Spanish course at Columbia University in the 1970’s.

I have been a great admirer of Jiménez since my teenage years, when I found out about him from my older brother. He was reading Jiménez’s classic in an English translation and greatly admired it.

Platero y yo is a simple, semi-autobiographical account, written in the first person, about a poet and his donkey. It evokes the region of Andalusia and the town of Moguer, the author’s birthplace (which I have visited).

Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881–1958) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956.

 

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My instructor for first year Spanish was Luciana de Ames. I believe she was Italian.

She was gorgeous. It was an all male class. It seemed like the whole class was in love with her. I certainly was.

She was a great foreign language teacher.

I got an A in her course in the spring of 1974 and an A plus from her in the second semester of the course.

I attended a lecture in Spanish that she gave to the Spanish Department. I did not understand most of it. It was on the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo (1892–1938), who was the focus of her scholarly interest.

Her literary enthusiasms also included Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) by Gabriel García Márquez, which had recently been published. Mrs. de Ames raved about the book.

Mrs. de Ames was married with a son about five years old. I ran into her walking with her son one day in Riverside Park. She was eating from a bag of potato chips. She was very friendly and didn’t seem at all fazed by meeting me in a different setting.

She was a natural. Open and unaffected. Extremely energetic and enthusiastic as a teacher and scholar, a lover of language and literature — it was so much fun being in her class.

 

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Because of the energy crisis, daylight savings rules had been instituted year round. Our class was at 8 a.m. We would be gathered in front of the Casa Hispanica on West 116th Street waiting for Mrs. de Ames to arrive. She would always seem to be running down the street breathlessly, just in time, and would unlock the front door of the building, fumbling with the keys. It was always dark because of daylight savings, not usual for that hour in the morning.

Mrs. de Ames also liked the Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío (1867-1916). She introduced us to Darío’s poem “Walt Whitman,” which begins:

En su país de hierro vive el gran viejo,
bello como un patriarca, sereno y santo.
Tiene en la arruga olímpica de su entrecejo
algo que impera y vence con noble encanto.

(In his country of iron lives the grand old man / beautiful as a patriarch, serene and holy. / He has in the Olympian wrinkle of his brow / something that prevails and conquers with noble charm.)

In one class, Mrs. de Ames asked, spontaneously — without there being any connection to the lesson — “Quien escribiò Hojas de yierba?” (who wrote Leaves of Grass?). I answered quickly, “Walt Whitman.”

The rest of the class had no clue as to the question. I didn’t either — at first. But it was the kind of question upon which my brain operates fast. I thought, “escribiò”: the word must have something to do with writing — escribir is a Spanish verb meaning to write and has the same root as the English word scribe.

“Hojas de yierba” stumped me for a nanosecond. Then, I thought: “yierba,” sounds like “herbs”; must mean something like grass. So the question must refer to someone who wrote about grass. (I didn’t know what “hojas,” leaves, meant.) It could only be Whitman. Who else wrote about GRASS?

Mrs. de Ames was impressed. So was the rest of the class. There was a bright, friendly law school student in the class. He was rubbing his forehead and asked me with incredulity, “how did you ever get that one?”

 

— Roger Smith

      May 2016

 

Postscript: I have wondered what became of Mrs. de Ames: what her academic career was like and where she might be now. I have been unable to locate her.