Sunday, October 2, 2011

Studying Languages without Learning

Studying a foreign language without learning it? It is like embarking on a trip and forgetting once on the way about the destination so that you can pour all your attention on the scenes, scenic or otherwise, and absorb them as fully as you possibly can. For most people taking up a foreign language for study, the motivation is utilitarian. You need it for one reason or another; the idea is to learn it so that you can at least read it, speak it, and possibly write it. It is a charming idea to know Italian in preparation for a trip to Florence; it is a generous gesture to try to learn Spanish to be friends with your new neighbors; it is an admirable thought to want to read Goethe in German, Flaubert in French, and Pushkin and Chekhov in Russian. It is a matter of responsibility to learn a particular language in order to read untranslated documents necessary for a research work. After a few years of study, you may be gratified with the result of your study. But, short of a degree of mastery, the effort is felt to have been in vain. Dropping the study after a while, unable to go further, you feel disappointed and even humiliated.

But studying a new language has a benefit of its own apart from achieving any pragmatic outcome. Language lessons, by and large, demand an enormous amount of time in building the vocabulary; but learning words is a mechanical affair which can be done on your own with a dictionary and flash cards. The essential part of language study is the mastery of the syntax rather than the lexicon. That is harder but more rewarding. Studying the syntax also exposes the semiotic boundaries of words unique to the particular language. For example, the English word “sister” covers two semiotic realms in Japanese which distinguishes “ane” (older sister) from "imôto" (younger sister) and lacks a single designation like "sister." Conversely, one Japanese word “yubi” identifies the “finger” and the “toe,” and “oyayubi” (literally, parent finger) covers two English terms “thumb” and “big toe” Every language has words that are untranslatable -- in the sense that there is no corresponding single term in another language, like “die Stimmung” and “l’esprit.” It’s the exposure to the syntax and semiotics of a new language that necessarily gives the learner a glimpse into some aspect of the culture of which that language is a part, a sort of kink in the way of thinking as seen from one’s own mother tongue; we learn in our encounter with a very different way of formulating ideas linguistically a possibility of a different way of thinking and, therefore, of viewing the world. In turn, it makes us aware of the peculiarities of our own culture which we readily take as unquestionably natural. Even if you dropped the study after a few weeks into the course, you come to realize an alternative way of thinking without having learned to use that language even passably. Even the basic understanding of the tones in Chinese as signifiers and the phonetic detail like the French “t,” which is not aspirated as the English “t” is, can be a revelation if we manage to stop and think about it. More removed the foreign language is from one’s own, say as Chinese, Arabic, and Swahili are to the English language speaker, the greater the benefit of becoming enlightened about the different modes of thinking. In order to gain an insight into another culture, you must study the language of that culture for what it is, not toward learning it to put into use.

Studying a subject for its own sake free of its utilitarian end is, indeed, the humanistic nature of the liberal arts education; it may appear to be a useless pursuit but in reality studying without necessarily trying to learn is as valuable as studying in order to learn. For a further observation on this matter, see my essay: The Usefulness of Usselessness.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Film Editing and History

An event or a scene can be described interestingly or boringly, dramatically or academically, expressively or sentimentally, clearly or confusingly. It depends not only on the choice of words but on their arrangement and pacing as well as the placement of stresses and pauses. In short, a good narration is articulated in writing or spoken presentation but especially in the latter. Similarly, a film will be incoherent unless well articulated. The scenes shot might be beautiful, interesting, and touching in isolation but, regardless of the quality of the shots, editing creates the final effect. Fiction or non-fiction, telling well means a good story-telling; in this sense, the documentary is fiction (and vice versa, as Jean-Luc Godard said and believed). Documenting reality is inexorably fiction because the filmmaker selects what to include in the work and thereby has to eliminate much of what actually exists in reality. Writing history is also inevitably selective. There is no comprehensive exposition of history, spoken or written; or, if such an attempt is made there is only a profuse confusion or confusing profusion. History, too, rather than presented comprehensively, must be edited to be comprehensible.

Small Eggs

Small eggs vanished from the market because they are sold in disguise encased in the boxes marked Medium; and, so, Medium is Large, Large is Extra Large, and Extra Large as JUMBO. Or, have hens, hormon-fattened, stopped laying small eggs? In fact, medium eggs have more recently disappeared, too. The thought occurred to me because the dozen eggs I got at the neighborhood Green Market recently were visibly and demonstrably small, very small.