Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Truth About English
or, Why I Couldn't Learn German

I haven't done much writing about all the books I've been reading this summer, but I have been reading, and it occurred to me that I meant to post this fabulous find a long time ago. John McWhorter, you see, has explained (part of the reason) why I had such an irritating time learning German, but found Spanish ridiculously easy by comparison. From his book, The Power of Babel, we learn:
[T]his Latin/French legacy can also leave English speakers somewhat frustrated when it comes to learning languages other than the Romance ones. Americans who found that after a few years of learning Spanish they could read a Spanish newspaper fairly comfortably are disappointed to find that after a few years of German classes, they can get at best the gist of even a rather simple magazine article or comic book, whereas an issue of a prestigious newspaper like Die Welt is virtually unintelligible. A person can even become fluent in casual spoken German after a year in the country and still be barely able to get through a page of Germany's general interest magazines such as Der Spiegel or Stern. This is the because the massive parallels between the "high" vocabulary in English and the Romance languages are due to a historical accident: most languages' vocabularies do not match to this extent on any level.

German is especially deceptive here because, given that it is closely related to English, many of the basic words are quite similar to ours, unlike French: instead of pain, eau, poisson, Brot, Wasser, and Fisch. But once we get to associations, the present, and opportunities casually discussed in Der Spiegel, the words are Verband, Gegenwart, and Gelegenheit - this means that one has to devote as much attention to internalizing the high layer of the German vocabulary as one does to the everyday layer in French.

-pp. 98-99
This is not to say that I do not appreciate the four years I spent struggling with "the awful German language." Since I became more academically interested in language acquisition, starting, of course, with my own attempts, I have classified that first attempt not as learning a language, but as learning how to learn a language. Trying to figure out German conjugations, cases, noun gender classifications, and noun/adjective agreements laid the foundations in my brain for 1) understanding English better, and 2) knowing how to make connections between metalanguage and the foreign language instruction I was receiving. My German was always terrible, and it has all but disappeared (except in those odd moments when I'm really tired and my language filters are breaking down,) but I still think it is because I took those years of German that I was able to become as fluent as I am in Spanish, that I took Japanese, Chinese, and Maputh√ľngun for fun, and that I am now pursuing second language acquisition as my higher academic goal.

I will add, however, that in the light of McWhorter's revalations above, I still think it was unfair for our middle school German teacher to tout the similarities between English and German in her "Take my elective!" spiel to incoming, innocent 6th graders. I always insisted that she used all 10 cognates in her presentation, to lure us into a false sense of security. Of course, as an overly literate child, I was probably also more frustrated than my peers at not being able to talk about all that abstract stuff English gets from its Romance side. I didn't want to talk about bread and fish, I wanted to talk about opportunities and associations. It seemed like I'd never learn enough vocabulary to talk about anything interesting, and in the end, I never did, at least not in German.

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