mon 22 dec 2008 01:58:45 witte de withstraat
misadventures in language learning
when as a teenager i first got to miss wilson's english class she defied us all to "conjugate the verb 'to be'". and was morbidly gleeful when none of us could. we all knew how to use "be" as in i am, you are, he is, etc. we just didn't know that was called "to be" and "conjugation". so we had no idea what the hell she was on about. my good friend miss wilson was proving to herself and to all of us that we had been ill served by all teachers from grade 1 thru 10. she was right, but that didn't help.
in german class, mrs gammons kept trying to teach us german using linguistic terms i'd never heard of -- declensions, conjugations, inflected endings, definite and indefinite articles usw -- as if we should have heard of them before. i think that was because she also taught french, and assumed that anyone trying to study such an arcane language as german must have already tried learning french.
the fact is in my home town of methuen, nobody ever taught us kids basic linguistics. that's why we had little idea what our language teachers were talking about. they assumed somebody had already taught us something, and preferred to berate us for never having been taught it instead of just teaching it to us.
i think the inconvenient fact is that each person needs to be taught language from where they stand, rather than being expected to begin at a standard position. justice or no justice, zo is het en niet anders. so i'm skeptical of the notion that mere immersion will help someone really learn a language. i have this craving to know the "why" of it, not just the "what." for example:
tonight as jk and i were walking up the rokin, we passed a game store, and then i was trying to wrap my head around another linguistic phenomenon. in popular culture, it seems to me that dutch people normally call a game a "spel", but they call a videogame a "game". just as they call a site a "plek" or "plaats" but they call a website a "site". thus one possible meaning of the loanword, usually the trendier or more alien one, becomes the sole definition of that loanword — constraining the meaning, and setting the stage for misunderstandings. earlier i claimed that the whole english language had become a subset of dutch, but i realize now that's not exactly true. they're adopting preferred slices of actual words and appropriating them more for effect than for semantic value.
so: what do linguists call this phenomenon? i never knew.
maybe we can just call it "misappropriation". i'm sure that when i walk around saying "zo is het en niet anders" my usage is putting a personal spin on the broader meaning of the phrase. and when i walk into a crowded bar and mutter "hm, gezellig hoor" or grumble "het is feest!", my grumpy shading certainly perverts the original meanings.
as a child i was taught to use language, but not to understand it. by the time i was old enough to know what i was missing, it was too late to learn it -- because linguistics per se was by then a field for scholars and intellectuals. this has always bugged me. i wish there had been a course in basic linguistics for ten-year-olds.