I learned to read at age 7, which was, in those days, completely normal. I think now it’s probably considered quite late. My parents’ philosophy was to leave the kids to play fully until it was time for school proper.
This worked out just fine. Learning to read at the age of seven was a non-event, simple to do, and with little effort I was soon reading chapter books.
I think about this process of learning to read because I’m still doing it. Both in English and foreign languages. And I believe so much of the skill is about having cultural information.
I can remember several distinct points in my life when I was able to read, but somehow lacked contextual information to make it relevant.
-When I was eight, reading some large book about King Arthur’s Stories, and feeling this sense that, maybe I wasn’t getting everything.
-When I was fourteen, reading a patent my dad had asked me to “proofread.” (Right.)
-And when I started reading the newspaper daily around the age of 23. With this last one I recall the sense of I should read this to be informed about the world and succeed at work, but it’s a little boring.
Now, 12 years later, I actively force myself NOT to read the paper because I find it SO fascinating and SO disturbing.
That’s a clear demonstration of expanded context. I wasn’t struggling to read the WSJ when I was twenty-three- I knew all the words- but I hadn’t enough context to get the many layers of meaning which make it interesting.
Learning to read in a foreign language has those same contextual requirements. For instance, last week, I encountered this sentence from a Die Welt article by Matthias Heine.
“Zur dritten Gruppe gehören dann jene Wörter, die vom oft in rätselhaften Windungen sich ergehenden Fluss des Sprachwandels einfach so fortgespült wurden: Gegen Wörter wie Dreikäsehoch, schwofen, Tausendsassa oder Schnurre hat keine Gleichstellungsbeauftragte je protestiert, keine Minderheit hat sich davon diskriminiert gefühlt, und keine Professx für gendergerechte Sozial-Homöopathie der Berliner Humboldt-Uni hat je einen Bannfluch gegen sie ausgesprochen. ”
It’s an example of missing some context in a foreign language. I looked at that word Professx and wondered if it was a typo. (It’s not, and the explanation is here.) Now, if I were a 35 year old German woman or someone who frequently stayed in touch with the German news, I probably would have known that word. Similarly, if I were a 35 year old English speaker who had a strong interest in gender studies, I probably would have known it as well, as the second article indicates.
But when reading in a foreign language, there’s always this added level of uncertainty: “Am I missing context or do I just not know this word? Or is it a typo?” In English, I expect to know every single word I’ll encounter outside of scientific texts, and will know intuitively if it’s being used accurately.
THE SPACE OF WORDS
Learning how to track down the actual emotions around words in a new language fascinates me. Often, there’s the dictionary translation for a word, and then there’s the actual usage.
In Arabic, the word منفعل is a good example. Google translates it as “excited.” So does a paper dictionary I have from Al-Jazeera. The primary meaning for excited in English is quite positive. But the actual meaning in Arabic is negative excitement- anxiety, upset, etc. I still don’t know how to convey positive excitement (“thrilled” is translated as “deeply happy”)
I’m sure there’s some proper linguistic term for this space of meaning which words occupy- and the varying overlays of emotional coloring as well. It’s hard to learn from a dictionary- it can only be extrapolated from exposure. I’ve been giving myself daily “homework” assignments to read some short article about relationships or life styles in Arabic women’s magazines online. (Think the sort of relationship advice pieces that you might see in Seventeen or Cosmo, but a little less racy.) It might feel really low-brow, but it’s a good way to learn the proper usage of emotional words, because I already have context about relationships. I understand relationships.
Or this: Like most people who learn another language through a concerted effort, without immersion, my arabic vocabulary is strongest as relates to language learning. The type of arabic I can read most easily is anything written about the process of teaching or learning arabic. It’s a cute little solipsism that easily develops. (And I’d point out: The process I’ve taken to learn Arabic is decidedly non-academic: My teacher, Kifah, and I simply had conversations, 2 hours per week, for a year and a half before beginning on grammar. )
Because I find classroom settings strangely soothing, I’ve been falling asleep to this series of videos I just found. These are actual classroom videos of beginner Arabic semesters at the University of Texas Austin. And here’s what I can extrapolate from watching them: most of the kids probably understand more about Arabic grammar than I do, but speak less fluidly. The challenge of any college classroom setting is that there just aren’t enough hours for the student to speak with a fluent speaker.
(Note: The titles say they are speaking in dialect- but, well, they aren’t. They are speaking in fus-Ha with some colloquial exclamations or phrases. If this is your area of interest, compare any video of Bassem Youssef in Al-Barnameg to the 2nd semester Egyptian Arabic classroom setting. The classroom is clearly in fus-Ha.)
Writing is the most challenging part of the foreign language learning process. It exposes every error you make in brilliant black and white, and memorializes them. I’m not really afraid to make errors in speaking- it’s easy to cover them up with a smile – but I’m anxious about writing more than two words and a punctuation mark strung together in a foreign language. Check this out: It’s a very simple invite to dinner at my house, with directions. (I knocked out the identifying location info.) There are approximately 80 words in this email and about 33 errors!
THE GOOD YEARS
Sometimes I lament the fact that I had no interest in language learning as a youngster, and didn’t really get into any language prior to the age of 28. I missed all those good years where I could have achieved perfect fluency. There are a couple sounds in Arabic that I can produce, but can’t differentiate between when listening ( س،ص،ه،ح) – and who knows, maybe I never will. I’ll be forced to understand those words from context only.
But then, it is context that drives me to explore other languages in the first place: strong curiosity about how other people think.