Thursday, March 20, 2008

Successive Approximations: How Language Learning Really Works

What on earth are successive approximations? Learning some, backing off, learning some more, backing off again, etc. Eventually, with enough of these reiterated cycles, you can accumulate quite a bit of knowledge. I find that this is in fact how I learn languages. Rarely do I just charge in, learn everything from lesson 1, and just keep on in a straight line until achieving a reasonable command of the language.

Although I had had this up-and-down experience with language learning several times before, it had always felt like the wrong way to go about it. I really should just plow on through. The only reason I did not was lack of diligence on my part, I thought. There might be something to this, but in fact, I think it is a behavior pattern that is rooted in common human nature. One day, I think it was when I was taking an anthropology class at SIL, I heard an account of the Indian groups who live along the jungle-lined rivers of Venezuela. Many tribes live along these rivers, and they regularly intermarry. Children grow up learning the language of each of their parents and bits of other languages spoken in their villages. As they grow, they gradually learn more of each of these secondary languages. By they time they reach middle age, they routinely have a good command of 7-10 languages. But they don't learn them by steady study of one at a time. They learn them by this process that I have labeled successive approximations.

After hearing about this, I felt "legitimated," so to speak, with regard to my own experience. I have felt good about it in the 25 years or so since taking that anthropology course. And I have continued learning languages in this way. Now that I am in my forties, I can see the benefit of this approach. I have gained sufficient ability in reading French that I can easily read the technical books and articles needed for my graduate studies. I have learned to read German well enough to at least plod through articles without getting lost in the deep forest of grammatical trees. My knowledge of Greek has likewise progressed in fits and starts to the point that I can now read the book of Hebrews in the New Testament with little difficulty, in spite of its Greek being the most complex in the NT corpus. And so on and so forth.

I am glad to be where I am, though it has taken much effort over many years. Given a couple thousand more years, who knows? I might actually get the sort of knowledge I would like in all the languages I would like to have it in! But in the meantime, it is nice to be able to read a lot of materials, even if slowly, that would have been all but impossible for me to handle ten or fifteen years ago.

So, those few of you who may actually read this blog, take heart. Don't beat yourselves up over your slow, often interrupted progress in learning the languages you want or need to know. Just keep on plugging away in those successive approximations and you will see plenty of good results as the years go by.

Hebrew: Little by little

The Alphabet

The Hebrew alphabet took me a while to learn. I think I made efforts for two or three years before it finally stuck. Why? Maybe because it was so different from the Greek and Russian alphabets which I had already learned. When I was about 12 or 13, I bought the paperback edition of Ehud Ben-Yehuda's pocket Hebrew dictionary. It included a table with the Hebrew alphabet. I made many efforts to learn this alphabet, but for a long time it simply would not stick in my mind. Finally, though, I think it was during my freshman year in high school in Fairborn, Ohio, I looked for the umpteenth time at the Hebrew on the cover of the dictionary. M-I-L-O-N. Whoa! What was that? I read a word?! Yes indeed, I had been able to read the Hebrew word milon, which means 'dictionary' on the cover of the dictionary. It felt like a great breakthrough to me. It may have been a while before I felt I had mastered all the letters, but at least I was over the hump.

However, it would be around three more years before I actually began to study the grammar and vocabulary of Hebrew. I had no idea where to find a grammar of Hebrew, and at any rate, I was busy with Spanish in high school, so Hebrew just remained a language in which I could sound out words but nothing more.

A Grammar

In the spring of 1978, while my family was living in Tehran, we went on the annual trip to Israel led by the pastor of the Community Church of Tehran, an interdenominational English-language church. The trip was a lot of fun, and toward the end, I managed to buy a few inexpensive textbooks of Hebrew for English speakers, as well as a Hebrew newspaper (Ma'arev). I still have these. All of these materials were for Modern Hebrew, rather than Biblical, but they were still useful. I made some modest efforts to learn the language, but only made slight progress.


One summer during my undergraduate days (it must have been 1981), I and one of my apartment mates, Monte, got the idea of going to Israel to work on a kibbutz. Though that idea never came off, it did spark a renewed bout of Hebrew study in me. I made and studied many vocabulary cards. One day, I must have been sitting and doing this for about two hours in the living room, when Monte commented (approximately), "Paul, you're the only person I know who can sit for two hours straight and study a language!" Well, what can I say? I'm an addict, and have been for many years.

Reading, More Grammar, More Vocabulary

After Monte finished his B.A., he started attending a seminary in Fort Worth. The seminary bookstore had the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia for $30, so I had Monte get me one. I still have it. It's a nice, large hardback, the kind that costs about $85 nowadays. With some help from the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon and maybe an analytical concordance and some other aids, I plodded through Ruth and some of Genesis. While this didn't exactly make me a fluent reader, it did slowly help me get past the point where I felt the need for an analytical concordance. Those things can too easily become crutches that prevent you from serious language learning.

Sidebar: Beware the Analytical Concordance

In case you don't know what an analytical concordance is, it is a book that lists every form of every word that appears in the Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Greek of the New Testament. It parses each form for you and tells you what root to look under. These books can be very convenient for beginners who cannot yet figure out what the root of an irregular form is, but you should strive to get rid of them at the earliest possible date. If you continue to rely on them, you will be like a baby who never got out of a walker and took steps on his own. You will never learn to "walk" in Hebrew or Greek!

More Grammar

Some time later, when I was living in Guatemala (1987?), I got a hankering to study Hebrew in depth. I got hold of Thomas Lambdin's An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew and made a little progress, but not all that much. Some of my Hebrew Bible reading came before this, and some after it. As it happened, the library of the mission group I belonged to had a copy of what I found to be an extremely helpful introductory Hebrew grammar: A Modern Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, by John F. A. Sawyer. Sawyer used a linguistic approach which I loved, but in so doing, he used reasonably good linguistic terminology. While his terminology was certainly not overly complicated, it was not the "old standard" muddle of Hebrew and Latinate terminology that most English-speaking students of the language are used to, so it never gained much popularity. Lambdin's book seems to have held the top slot up to the present day. Well, in 1997, when I was taking my Greek course at Knox Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I found Sawyer's book in the library. I was thrilled! I wanted to get my own copy. I wrote to the publisher at the address in the book, asking either to be told how I could get a copy or to be granted permission to make a copy for myself. Some time later, I got a response from the British company that had acquired the rights to the books by the original publisher, which it had bought. They said the book was out of print and there were no plans to reprint it, and they gave me permission to make a copy for my own use. I did, and I have the letter in a sheet protector in the notebook where my copy is stored. Happily, the book can be obtained for less than $20 via various internet dealers. I think there has even been a reprint, but the site that lists it is down right now.

After we moved to our house in Huehuetenango, Guatemala in January or early February 2002, I had to spend a solid month running around and doing a ton of stuff to get us settled. That was very tiresome. When all that was finally done, I rewarded myself by taking a week or so to read through Sawyer's book again. By that time I didn't imagine that I would magically master Hebrew, but I had become conscious that the way I learn just any language is by what I call "successive approximations." This time through Sawyer's book was another stage of approximation to Hebrew for me.

As 2003 drew toward its close, I got to looking online for possible Christmas gifts for myself. One thing I wanted was a frequency guide to Hebrew vocabulary. That would help me work on the most frequent words first, then gradually move to the less frequent words. I settled on A Student's Vocabulary for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic by Larry A. Mitchel. After it arrived, I started making vocabulary cards. I eventually made about 1,500, all of which I learned over several months. I don't remember them all now, but it was a helpful exercise.

I highly recommend vocabulary frequency lists for learning both Biblical Hebrew and Greek. They give you a palpable sense of progress because they enable you to read the most text the most quickly. There are numerous lists out there for both languages. Which one you get is not nearly as important as simply getting one and going to work on the words.

Uses of Hebrew for a Semitist Majoring in Other Languages

That more or less leads me up to the present. I am not specifically studying Hebrew at Catholic University, but it does come into some of my courses and I find that my knowledge of it, however limited, is useful. To be specific, in the second semester of my Advanced Biblical Greek class, we read parts of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the process, we regularly compared the Greek text with the Hebrew to see how they were related. There are some interesting differences, and in some of them, it is clear that the Septuagint reading is superior to the Hebrew as preserved in the traditional Masoretic text. At any rate, we had to compare the Hebrew and Greek texts, and on the exams, our professor had us translate a passage from Hebrew into Greek. That was a challenge! During the same semester, we read a good bit of the book of Exodus in Syriac, and in that class we compared the Syriac Peshitta text with numerous versions, including the Hebrew original. This year I am taking Targumic Aramaic. During this spring semester, we have now finished the introductory grammar and are reading 1 Samuel in Aramaic. We regularly refer to the Hebrew to see how the Targum differs from it (the differences are sometimes spectacular!). So my modest Hebrew is being used and even improved a little.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Farsi/Persian: A beautiful language, a deep attachment

My relationship with Farsi, also known as Modern Persian, goes back over 30 years. We learned that my dad, an Air Force officer, had been assigned to go to Tehran to join thousands of other American military personnel in upgrading the training of the Iranian Air Force. As a confirmed language fan even then, my first interest was to study the language of the country, generally known as Farsi (though some people in academia prefer the name Persian). With the help of Elementary Persian Grammar by L. P. Elwell-Sutton, I set out on this interesting journey. It took some time and concentration to learn the alphabet. I even made a large poster of it. I also started to learn some words.

We arrived in Iran about November 1, 1976. In January 1977 my parents and I started taking the first level of Farsi courses offered by the Iran American Society. After a few months of memorizing dialogues and vocabulary lists, and drilling numerous grammatical patterns with the help of our teacher, Homa Salehizadeh, I had gained a basic conversational ability.

My knowledge proved useful for handling purchases at the corner store and also at the U.S. Army Motor Pool, which gave summer jobs to many American high schoolers. We worked under Iranian employees who did not know English (there was a floating interpreter who went from shop to shop to facilitate communication where needed). My modest command of Farsi proved very helpful as I worked in the carpentry shop. Also, the son of the shop supervisor came in sometimes. He was a university student studying English, with the goal of becoming a translator.
I learned the Farsi names of quite a few tools from him, and he learned their English names from me.

Over time, I continued to acquire vocabulary and gain better (though never excellent) control of the grammar. One thing that greatly hampered my study was the lack of an adequate dictionary. There were large dictionaries by S. Haim readily available, but they were designed for native speakers of Farsi who were studying English, not native English speakers learning Farsi. What this meant was that most Farsi words did not have vowels marked, which meant that a non-native had to guess among many possibilities. In practice, this meant that I never shelled out the many rials that such a dictionary would have cost.

Instead, I used the one dictionary that I knew of that showed the vowels of every word: Ann K. S. Lambton's Persian Vocabulary. This was great as far as it went, but it didn't go all that far. It was designed to be used in a classroom with her Persian Grammar textbook. It was definitely not designed to be practical in everyday use in the life of a city. I became so frustrated with its frequent failure to include words I came across, or to include the right meanings for many words, that I added some uncomplimentary words above and below the title on the half-title page: "Greatly Abridged, Short" Persian Vocabulary "For the User of Impractical Persian." My favorite example of an inadequate selection of meanings has to do with the word roughan. I saw this word regularly on billboards. When I looked it up in Lambton, I found the glosses "clarified butter" and "grease". I finally learned, probably from context, that on the billboards it meant "motor oil". One of the words in the vocabulary that struck me as most useless was "Transoxania"--what on earth could that be? What was it doing in this crazy dictionary when it lacked such obviously necessary words as "airport" and "driver"? I suppose that these words just did not occur in the literary texts that Lambton designed her vocabulary for. I eventually learned that Transoxania is a geographical term which refers to a region of Central Asia to the northeast of Iran. A lot of good that did me on the streets of Tehran, but I guess it proved useful to Lambton's classroom students way off in Britain.

One thing I did to help reduce the shortcomings of Lambton's vocabulary was to add every word in Elwell-Sutton's vocabulary that was not already in Lambton. I also added some words from my IAS texts. Probably some of my additions came from other sources as well. The dictionary still lacked many necessary words, but that was as much as I could do at the time. Fortunately, much better dictionaries have appeared in the intervening years. For discussion of some of these, see my reviews on Amazon.

Moving on from my griping, I remember when our family went on a tourist trip to some northern towns. I was able to have limited but interesting conversations with people on the street. That felt very rewarding. By the time I left Iran, I had arrived at what I later learned to call an FSI 2+ level, which meant "limited working proficiency." (FSI stood for "Foreign Service Institute." It has now been changed to ILR, "Interagency Language Roundtable.")

I have dabbled in Farsi off and on over the years since, because it has always had a powerful esthetic appeal to me. It is a beautiful, poetic language. However, my current level is probably around 1+ or 2. I have been sitting in on a Farsi class at a nearby university once a week, which is as often as my schedule permits. This has helped revive some dormant bits of knowledge, as well as adding some new bits. I'm sure I'll keep working on Farsi from time to time. It just fascinates me. Who knows, maybe one of these years I'll be able to read the fine poetry which is the heart of Persian literature.

German: Differences we can't blame on Eddie and Willy

Before I leave the matter of English-German linguistic contrasts, I should note that there is one area of difficulty for English-speaking students of German which cannot be laid at the door of William the Conqueror: syntax. This is the area where my description in the last post is most applicable: "the mildly different grammar patterns that are just different enough to cause constant conflict with our own." Both English and German make heavy use of directional particles in conjunction with verbs, and it is plain that the systems have similar origins. However, the German system is just different enough to cause major difficulties for English speakers.

(Before proceeding, if you have not already done so, immediately consign to the garbage heap of commonly taught misinformation the idea doubtless imparted to you by middle or high school English teachers that "you must not end a sentence with a preposition." This is an artificial imposition of a fact of Latin grammar on a language of a quite different structure. It has always be perfectly natural in English to end sentences with directional particles, which the Latin-trained elite of a few centuries ago mistakenly equated with Latin prepositions. Regardless of who said it, the statement "
That is a rule up with which I will not put," commonly but perhaps inaccurately attributed to Winston Churchill, is quite appropriate when faced with this completely erroneous assertion.)

In English, we normally put directional particles immediately after the verb or after a relatively short direct object following the verb. An example:
I am looking up the word "haymanutha" in my Syriac dictionary.
We could also say:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" up in my Syriac dictionary.
We can also omit the final prepositional phrase and say simply:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" up.
Or even more simply:
I am looking it up.
This is completely natural in English and has been, as far as I know, ever since Anglo-Saxon days. The reason is that "up" is not a preposition here! It is a directional particle that specifies the meaning of the rather general verb "look."

German uses directional particles in the same way, but when they are what are called "separable" directional particles, they must go at the very end of independent clauses, and this can prove confusing to English speakers. Our original sentence would look like this with German word order:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" in my Syriac dictionary up.
This kind of construction is extremely frequent in German, so one must get used to looking quickly at the end of a clause to see if there is a directional particle that might modify the meaning of the main verb of the clause. It takes some getting used to!

One more detail of German word order often proves trying to non-native learners: the placement of the verb in the final position of subordinate and relative clauses. In English the verb may wind up in the final position of a subordinate or relative clause, but it does not have to. For example:
Do you know how much it costs?
I love the same children that my wife loves.
I love the woman who loves my children.
As can be seen, the verb (costs, loves) remains in the position in which it would be found in the corresponding independent clause, while the focalized element (i.e., the item that is questioned or relativized: how much, that, who) is placed at the beginning of the subordinate clause. If this item would normally follow the verb and there is nothing else following, the verb will wind up in the final position, as in the first two examples. But if the item would normally precede the verb, there it stays, and any item that would normally follow the verb stays after the verb, as in the last example.

In German, though, the verb in such clauses
always goes at the end. And in this case, by the way, the separable directional particles remain prefixed to the verb. Thus, the word order for the German equivalent of the first two examples above would be the same. But the order for the third example would be:
I love the woman who my children loves.
In a short example like this it is not too hard to follow this word order, but in the long, complex sentences that typify scholarly prose, one must again develop the habit of immediately looking to the end of the clause.

Oh yes, there is also the matter of auxiliary verbs, equivalent to English
can, should and so forth. In English we always put these auxiliary verbs immediately before the main verb and tend to think of the two as an inseparable unit:
I must look this word up in my Syriac dictionary.
But in German, you can never forget that everything that follows the auxiliary verb is techinically a kind of subordinate clause. The German word order for the preceding sentence would be:
I must this word in my Syriac dictionary up-look.
Thus, whenever you find an auxiliary verb in German, you must immediately look to the end of the following subordinate clause to find the main verb.

Again, these differences cannot be blamed on French influence. English and German just took slightly different tacks in their historical development. But this "slight" difference is just the right kind to lead to
major headaches for English-speaking students of German. The only cure I know of for these headaches is plenty of practice. After you have been regularly reading German for a while (at least several months), these tricks for reading it will become second nature.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

German: Such words! Such syntax! Or, another reason for English speakers to loathe the memory of William the Conqueror

German is a Germanic language. So is English. So, why do English speakers find it so blasted hard to learn German? Two reasons: vocabulary and grammar. Yes, German also has a few sounds that English doesn't have, but these are as nothing compared to the wildly different vocabulary and the mildly different grammar patterns that are just different enough to cause constant conflict with our own.

Who is to blame for this unfortunate estrangement of siblings? A certain Englishman and a certain Frenchman. The Englishman was the last king before William, known as Edward the Confessor. Edward's conception of religion led him to believe that he would be more blessed by God if he remained chaste throughout his life. Maybe he felt personally blessed, but his failure to father an heir proved a curse to England. Upon his death, a vicious war of succession broke out. It was won by William, Duke of Normandy, who had a real, though weak, claim to the throne. As William was French, he brought in a great many Frenchmen to help him rule his new kingdom. Over the course of the next few centuries, the hardy Anglo-Saxon language came under the strong influence of the newly prestigious Norman dialect of French, the language of the nobility. This affected English phonology, morphology and, most especially, its lexicon.

The phonological changes in English were not severe enough to cause a great deal of difficulty with relation to German. The main effect was that certain sounds that had previously been allophones (variants conditioned by the sounds around them) became distinct phonemes. Thus, f and v used to be variants of a single phoneme (a sound considered "the same" by native speakers of a language). The f sound was used at the beginning or end of a word, or within a word before a voiceless consonant. The v sound was used inside a word between vowels or before a voiced consonant. The same conditions applied to s and z, voiced th as in "the" and voiceless th as in "thin." In French, though f and v, s and z were distinctive phonemes, that is, these sounds could distinguish one word from another. This came to be the case in English as well. This is why, in Old English, in the word heofon the letter "f" was pronounced like the "v" of the modern English equivalent, heaven.

Changes in morphology, that is, word structure, were much more noticeable and did create serious difficulties for English speakers learning German. Noun plurals, in particular, became simplified. The consonant s, with phonologically conditioned variant pronunciations, became the almost universal marker of plurality. It had served as the plural in some cases in some declensions in Old English, but the fact that this was apparently the most common plural ending in Norman French no doubt helped make it the standard in English. Also, the highly simplified French case system helped English lose all morphological noun cases except the genitive (the possessive "apostrophe s" of Modern English). German, on the other hand, has retained its complex case system up to the present day. This creates considerable difficulties for English speakers learning German.

The largest barrier to the easy learning of German by English speakers is, in my estimation, the vocabulary. The core vocabulary of the two languages (i.e., about the 200 most frequent words) is largely cognate (i.e., derived from the same Proto-Germanic root and recognizably similar). Thus help/helfen (verb), go/gehen, eat/essen, man/Mann, etc. But once you get out of this core vocabulary, there are huge differences. This is due to the absorption of large quantities of French vocabulary (ultimately from Latin) by English, as well as a considerable volume of Greek, in contrast to the decision of German speakers to coin new words by joining existing German roots rather than borrowing Latin and Greek terms willy-nilly as English has long done. Thus, for example, in linguistic writing, where English says sentence construction (two Latin words), German says Satzbau (one word with two German roots). In the realm of religion, English uses baptism (from Greek), while German has Taufe. English history (Greek), German Geschichte. English society (Latin), German Gesellschaft. And so on and so forth. The result is that English speakers learning French, Spanish or Italian will immediately recognize thousands of cognates, while in German they will only find a few hundred, and most of the technical terms needed for a particular field of learning will be completely different. So English-speaking graduate students face a daunting amount of vocabulary learning to make even modest progress in German, whereas once they have learned a couple hundred words of non-cognate core vocabulary in a Romance language, their path is clear because of the overwhelming mass of cognates in technical vocabulary.

In a separate post, I will deal with syntactic conflicts between English and German that cannot be blamed on William.

Alibris - What's in a name?

If you know Latin, this might not be news to you, but if not, you might find this amusing.

I heard about quite a while before I started using it. A lady at the church I used to go to regularly bought books from them and recommended that I check out their site. I started pondering the name and then I realized that the person who named the site had played one of my favorite games: making a bilingual pun!

"Alibris" is actually two words in Latin:
a "by" (as in the agent of a passive verb) and libris "books" (ablative case, which among other things is used to indicate the agent of a passive verb). Thus we have a phrase meaning "by books," as in, "He was hit by books that fell off the shelf during the earthquake." But of course, this sounds the same as the imperative clause "Buy books!" which is what Alibris wants you to do.

Ah, those clever Romans!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Biblical Greek: From When It was Greek to Me

As I mentioned in my first post, I learned the Greek alphabet by the time I was nine years old (by dint of repetition, not a deliberate attempt to memorize it). However, it was some years before I started studying the language in earnest. The moment finally arrived when I was a senior in high school. By this time my family had moved to Del City, Oklahoma. A big turn in my spiritual life led me to have an intense desire to study New Testament Greek.


I found a textbook at a local Christian bookstore (Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament, 1950). It was a reasonably good introduction to the language (although better texts have come out since). The one thing to which I vigorously objected even then, and to which I even more vigorously object now, was a statement in the introduction. I no longer have the book, so the following quote is only approximate, but the meaning is unaltered: "It was logical that God should have used Greek as the medium for the New Testament, for it is the most expressive language known to man." For a person with an appreciation for the range of human languages, this last clause is heresy! Even at the age of 17 or 18, when I got this book, I was appalled by the smugness and ignorance displayed by this statement. There simply is no such thing as "the most expressive language known to man." The most expressive language known to any person is usually his or her first language, whether Sipakapense, Chinese, Xhosa or Spanish... or Greek! Greek was used for the composition of the New Testament because it was the language of scholarship and commerce in the eastern Mediterranean region. The Greeks had been colonizing that area for centuries, and the conquests of Alexander of Macedon ("the Great") spread Greek even farther and cemented its status as a language of government administration. People spoke many languages throughout this large geographical area, but Greek was a language they all had in common. It was likely the native tongue of Paul of Tarsus and the gospel writers who came after him. These men were well prepared to compose the documents that came to form the New Testament in the language in which they could most readily gain wide circulation.

Having gotten past that myth (which I hope is not still circulating in seminaries!), let me tell a bit about how I slowly got to know Greek. I started plodding through Summers' book on my own. I got fairly far along, but I remember that understanding the nature of Greek participles was beyond me at the time. Whether it was a poor exlpanation in the book or simply my own inadequate comprehension of the explanation, I cannot remember. From time to time as an undergraduate I returned to Greek. Bits and pieces kept sinking in, but much still eluded me.

Some time after I started my linguistic studies at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the fall of 1981, maybe even a year after that, I briefly joined a Greek reading group composed of three or four students. I still had trouble making much sense of connected text. Some verb forms stumped me and the syntax (by which I mean word order) was often incomprehensible. But overall, this exposure did more good than harm.

A Breakthrough: Hepatitis

In 1989, while I was living in Guatemala, I got hepatitis. To make good use of the time as my body slowly recovered, I undertook the study of Russian. It turns out that Russian has a system of participles that is very similar to that of Greek. Somehow, as I studied the books from Moscow, participles finally clicked! Basically, they are verbs turned into adjectives which, like all adjectives in many languages, can also function as nouns. Hurray! I was finally over one of the most daunting hurtles in my acquisition of Greek.

Eventually I found myself in Florida, starting in 1990. A few years after I got a job as a Spanish editor at a Christian publishing company (Editorial Vida), I finally decided that my hankering to be able to read the New Testament (and the Septuagint) in Greek was not going to be satisfied until I actually started applying myself to the task. No thunderbolts of knowledge from heaven were going to suddenly put it in my brain! So I went back to reading the NT on my own, with help from a lexicon and maybe even some help from that crippler of language learners: an analytical concordance. (I know, it's embarrassing to admit it, but even at that late date I may have sometimes given in to the temptation to go back to the linguistic equivalent of bottle-feeding.)

Consolidation: My First Class in a Seminary

Finally, after my company was acquired by another one that offered educational benefits to its employees, I was able to enroll in a local seminary (Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale) and take a second semester Greek course (Spring 1997). This was just what I needed at the time. About the time I began the course, I finished my first reading of the entire New Testament in Greek. While there was still plenty that I didn't know, I had at least become somewhat familiar with how the Greek writers expressed themselves. Greek II helped me nail down various of the verb and noun forms that had been hovering on the periphery of my knowledge. Somewhere over the course of the next few years, I finished reading through the NT again, this time with much more appreciation of the style of the language and the idiosyncrasies of the various authors. I still had to look up some words, and Hebrews and 2 Peter continued to be exceedingly difficult syntactically, but I had definitely gotten past the "decipherment" phase to the phase of reasonably fluent reading.

Pedal to the Metal: Greek with Frank

After my second reading of the NT, I very occasionally read a chapter in Greek, but my attention to it was very sporadic. Finally, in the fall of 2006, I began my studies at the Catholic University of America. One of the requirements for all students in the Semitics department is to take two semesters of Advanced Biblical Greek. This I did during the 2006-07 school year. I thought I would die that first semester! I have boundless admiration for my professor, Dr. Francis T. Gignac (JEEN-ee-ack), who likes to be called just "Frank" by his students. He is a Jesuit about my father's age. He is very friendly, very erudite and very demanding of his students.

In the fall semester, our reading consisted of all the genuine Pauline epistles. This meant two chapters every class day (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). We all had to be prepared to translate the entire text of the two chapters. About two weeks into the course, Frank informed us that we would be expected to be able to produce from memory every principal part of every verb. Yikes! That meant up to six forms of each of hundreds of verbs. Also, on the exams he would put a passage from one of the books we had read up to that point and we had to be able to translate it with no reference to a dictionary. This meant some serious vocabulary memorization. I knew most of the words that occured 50 times or more in the NT, but there were plenty that were less frequent than that, so I had to start making cards for all the ones I either didn't know or wasn't quite sure of. Thus my commutes by bus and train to and from the university were largely taken up with studying the seemingly endless lists of words and verb forms. This, combined with my other courses, demanding in themselves, made me feel like I was drowning.

I learned from a student who had introductory Greek with Frank that his first semester is known as "boot camp": he takes the beginners through the entire introductory textbook (which he wrote) in about six weeks! They have to learn all the principal parts of all their verbs. This is the amount of grammar and vocabulary commonly covered in a full two semesters of seminary courses. My friend told me that the beginning students felt like they were drowning too. But, he said, it was extremely satisfying after this very intense period of study, to be able to open the Gospel of John in Greek and find he could read it with ease.

Well, by the time I finished that first semester of advanced Greek, my "okay" knowledge had been whipped into shape and could perhaps even be called "good." But there was more to come! In the second semester (which I was in just a year ago!) we read parts of the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), that is, the Greek translation of the Old Testament done a couple of centuries before Christ. In that course, we had to keep an eye on the Hebrew text as well, to see how the Greek differed from the Hebrew. We also found that the quality of translation varied wildly, from good renderings in some books to horrible renderings in others, ones so bad as to be virtually incomprehensible, unless you already knew what the Hebrew said. Once again, there were many principal parts and many new vocabulary words to learn, as well as various grammatical peculiarities of LXX Greek that set it apart from both Classical and New Testament Greek. On our tests, we had a passage to translate from Greek to English, but also one to translate from Hebrew to Greek! My Hebrew is only middling, and composing coherent text in Greek was a big challenge, but I survived. I am grateful to Frank for pushing us to learn as much as we did; my Greek would never have reached its current reasonably good level without him, I'm sure. But whew! What a lot of work!

Why Do Semitists Learn Greek?

Since Greek is an Indo-European language, like English and Spanish, rather than a Semitic language, like Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic, you may wonder why Semitists have to study it. Here is the answer.

If you aim to become a scholar of Old Testament Hebrew, you will have to be able to use the Septuagint as you study matters of textual criticism. The Septuagint is the earliest translation of the Hebrew text and sometimes witnesses to a version different from the current Masoretic text.

If, as I am, you are a student of the Semitic languages of the early centuries of the Christian Church (Syriac, Arabic and Coptic [though this last is not quite Semitic, as I explain here]), you will find abundant Greek loanwords, often key theological terms. Also, many Greek theological writings were translated into these languages and exercised a profound influence on how writers of these languages formulated their own theological expressions. Particularly in Coptic, you would be hamstrung without a knowledge of Greek.

What Textbook of New Testament Greek Do I Recommend?

There are a great many possibilities out there, and I am not familiar with them all. Of the ones I am familiar with, though, the one I recommend is the one I used at Knox: David Alan Black's Learn to Read New Testament Greek. Dr. Black shows an awareness of linguistics, and he happily debunks some of the ridiculous myths about Greek that have circulated for generations in seminaries. My favorite is his refutation of the utterly baseless notion that the "aorist" is a kind of magical "once-and-for-all" tense. In the first place, it is not a tense (absolute time reference), but an aspect (indication of the speaker's point of view). In the course of his explanation on page 50, Black says, "Hence, the 'once-for-all' nature of the aorist, so often celebrated in sermon and commentary, is little more than nonsense if one is arguing that it is the aorist tense per se that proves the nature of the action behind it." Amen!

Frank Gignac's book, An Introductory New Testament Greek Course, is a bit more heavy duty. He includes information on the historical development of the language and even on its Indo-European ancestry. If you have a knack for languages and an interest in the history of Greek, you could start out with this book. Otherwise, start out with something like Black and use Gignac for review and expansion of your knowledge.

The Gospel of Judas

One result of my dawning realization of the complexity of Coptic is that I can attribute little or no credibility to comments about Coptic documents, such as the recently published Gospel of Judas, by people who do not have a sound knowledge of Coptic and of Greek as it was used in the early centuries of the Christian era, as well as the relevant scholarly literature. Even some people who do have such knowledge can sometimes go astray, as clearly happened with the books on the Gospel of Judas published by the National Geographic Society.

Few if any serious Coptic scholars outside the National Geographic team (which did include some well-prepared scholars, in spite of the results) find credible the idea that this "gospel" presents Judas in a positive light. Some scholars of religion who do not specialize in Coptic have gotten on the "good Judas" bandwagon, but the mounting evidence strongly suggests that they are out of their depth.

This semester (Spring 2008) I have been part of a graduate class in which we have read the gospel of Judas in Coptic and prepared translations of it. We have also read and discussed some of the serious scholarly literature that started coming out very soon after NG made its transcription of the text available online in April 2006. It is plain that the NG team leapt to rather far-fetched conclusions on the basis of very shaky evidence. It is too soon to say that the scholarly world has yet come to a consensus about how to interpret this intriguing document; such a consensus will take years to emerge. But scholars with a sound knowledge of the relevant subjects seem to have little doubt that the NG interpretation is deeply flawed. It is fairly clear that Judas is portrayed in a negative light--some say the most negative light possible. The main purpose of this gospel may have been for Sethian Gnostics to mock the "orthodox" Church (the one that has evolved into the modern Catholic Church with its Protestant offshoots). These are just hypotheses at this point, not firmly established theories. The main point of this little blurb, though, is not to offer a definitive analysis of this "gospel," but to advise you not to put much stock in the Judas-praising popular literature by non-experts that is pouring off presses for the general public. The main purpose of these books seems to be to make money for the publishers and authors, not to offer serious analyses of the text or the issues it raises.

By the way, one of the facts about the Gospel of Judas that became clear as we studied it is that it was rather poorly translated from the Greek original (which, alas, seems not to have survived). There is some rather bad grammar and some words are used in strange ways. Yes, hack translation jobs have been around for a long time!

Was Syriac "The Language of Jesus"?

Today you can find various books written in Syriac or teaching Syriac or translated from Syriac, in which the author claims that this is "Aramaic, the language of Jesus." Well, it is true that Syriac is one of the many dialects of Aramaic, and it is true that Jesus spoke Aramaic. However... (sorry to burst any bubbles) Jesus did not speak Syriac. Jesus spoke a rather different dialect of Aramaic. The speakers of his dialect could probably understand Syriac, and vice versa, but there may have been some difficulties in communication. So when you see a book that advertises Syriac as the language of Jesus, take this claim with a grain of salt. Even so, by reading works in Syriac, especially ones written before the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE), you will be reading a language whose thought categories are much closer to those of Jesus than those of Byzantine Greek which later became dominant in theological discussion (particularly during the Christological controversies of the 5th century, which is why I give the Council of Chalcedon as a dividing point). The Syriac writings of St. Ephrem of Nisibis are the epitome of Syriac literature, but they also take the most study to fully understand.

Although I have cursorily mentioned Greek influence above, I should be more specific. The Syriac-speaking area was by no means untouched by Greek. Syriac was the dialect of Aramaic spoken in the city of Urhay, and by the time Ephrem was born in the nearby city of Nisibis in 303 CE, Edessa had been under Greek influence for some six centuries, thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great. Ephrem himself was quite knowledgeable of at least one school of Greek philosophy, and the Syriac language had quite a few Greek loanwords (quite a few Persian ones, as well, but that's another story). Even so, Ephrem had a talent for expressing himself in a rather traditional Aramaic-sounding way, so his writings are a rich source of insight into Aramaic thought categories in the 4th century of the Christian era.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Coptic: Starting from Zero

I will continue this blog by going on to the next language I am studying at CUA: Coptic. Back in early 2006, as I was contemplating my course of studies at the university I was about to enroll in, I decided to do something with Coptic that I had not done for a long time: start cold. My desire to overachieve in language studies has usually led me to study a lot on my own before beginning a course. I considered following this "standard procedure" with Coptic, but then I thought, hey, why not test myself and see if my language acquisition ability is still as sharp as it was 30 years ago? I did study the extra letters that Coptic added to the Greek alphabet, and somehow I picked up on the fact that "p" had something to do with masculine gender and "t" with feminine gender, but that was all. I had no idea how verbs, nouns or syntax worked. It was gratifying to see that, even though my learning was not perfectly smooth, it was quick and fairly solid.

Coptic reminds me of a statement I found in the old edition of Teach Yourself Malay, the edition pubished in the 1950's or 60's, one of the many Teach Yourself books that I bought as a kid. The author said that Malay was a language about which after ten weeks of study you think you know everything, but after ten years, you know you never will. To be sure, Coptic has a rather complicated set of tense systems, but the word order is extremely regular: Subject-Verb-Object. Sometimes, for stylistic reasons or in imitation of Greek word order, the subject is placed after the verb, but in this case it is preceded by a short word, nkyi, which simply serves to say, "This is the subject and it follows the verb." What could be easier?

Well, now that I'm in my fourth semester instead of my first, I see that a great many things could be easier. Coptic syntax has a lot of subtleties, especially Coptic composed by native speakers (particularly Shenoute) rather than just translated from Greek, as so much Coptic literature is. Coptic has a number of homophonous words and morphemes, and often there are uncertainties as to how a certain string of letters should be divided up (like Greek, whose alphabet it borrowed, Coptic was not written with nice, neat spaces between words). Spelling variations can represent either scribal idiosyncrasies or actually morphological differences. Borrowed Greek words may have meanings that appear way down the list in a standard lexicon, or that are not even in these lists, but only attached by some thin strand of meaning.

An Esthetic Appreciation of Coptic

Coptic is quite a fascinating, versatile language. It is not actually a Semitic language, but a member of the Egyptian branch of the broader Afro-Asiatic language group, of which Semitic and other families form part. Coptic is taught in CUA's Semitics department because of the powerful role of the Egyptian Church in the early centuries of Christianity, and its close association with the Syriac Church.

As I was studying Coptic, I was struck by the interesting mix of features in it. About half of its grammatical characteristics are similar to Semitic, and the other half is in part unique in my experience, and in part reminds me of numerous other languages that I have studied, such as Farsi, Russian and Mayan.

The effort required to gain a good knowledge of Coptic is worth it if you want to understand a major swath of early development of the Church. A lot of the theological arguments crucial to the definition of "orthodoxy" and "heresy" were carried out Coptic speakers. The Greek New Testament manuscripts that represent what is generally considered the oldest version of the text were copied in Alexandria, Egypt, by scribes who, in many cases, had Coptic as their first language. Major forms of monasticism had their origin among Coptic-speaking Egyptians, and a good deal of their writing still survives. Hurray for Coptic!

Syriac: From Wading Pool to High Dive

What is Syriac? Not a few people may have this question, so I will answer it immediately. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. This latter language has gained some fame as the language of Jesus, most recently in the movie "The Passion." Aramaic was a major language in the Near East for many centuries. It had many dialects over the period in which it flourished, and there were many variants from place to place where it was spoken. There were no TV's or radios to promote a "standardized" broadcast version, so different spoken dialects abounded (although standard written forms were more or less successfully maintained among the educated elite at various time periods). Syriac was the major language of Christian church in Syria and over a vast territory stretching east of it, even to India and China. Aramaic has the largest amount of surviving literature of any ancient Semitic language, and Syriac represents the largest chunk of it.

Getting My Toes Wet

Okay, I seem to have started off with a digression. The point of this entry is to talk about my own experience of learning Syriac. But because the name may be unfamiliar, or perhaps just marginally familiar, I wanted to start with a brief explanation of what it is. Now for my own story. Once again, serendipity enters the picture. On November 2, 2005, I was walking around Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where I had lived for 3 1/2 years, until moving to the nearby rural town of Sipacapa. On one of my regular trips to town for groceries and supplies, I went into one of the many small evangelical bookstores in town to see what was new. To my astonishment, I found a Syriac Bible on display! Who could have imagined such a thing? I was probably the only person in western Guatemala who would have even recognized what language it was. Why would a bookstore that catered to Spanish speakers have such a volume? When I asked, I was told that it had been sent out by the Bible Society of Guatemala in August, the "Month of the Bible" in that country. It had been heavily discounted. I suspect that the Bible Society had been holding this book in its warehouse in the capital for years and didn't know what to do with it. So they took advantage of the Month of the Bible to chop to price to a third of the original and send it to the provinces. Well, as destiny, luck or divine intervention would have it, this book wound up in a place where I would see it. Although I wasn't exactly awash in money, this was such a novelty and such a good deal that I couldn't resist it.

Presently, I got to looking on the internet to see what books I could find on Syriac and where I might be able to study it seriously. I soon found some of the major modern works on the language, both a teaching grammar as well as reference grammars, and a good dictionary. I put three books on my Christmas list, and thus, on Christmas day, 2005, I began to seriously study this mysterious and fascinating language. Some of the patterns and words were familiar due to their similarity to Hebrew, which I had dabbled in off and on since I was 17. But a number of features were new, since Syriac is not a member of the Canaanite branch of Semitic languages to which Hebrew belongs.

In two months of intensive study, I worked my way through Wheeler M. Thackston's Introduction to Syriac, the best introductory textbook available, in case you're interested. I was aided by Theodor Noldeke's Compendious Syriac Grammar and Jessie Payne Smith's A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. About the middle of this process, I acquired Takamitsu Muraoka's very helpful Classical Syriac, a shorter reference grammar, but much more recent and up-to-date than Noldeke's 1898 volume (in its 1904 English translation).

Jumping Off the High Dive

Before and during this period of study, I got to looking on the internet to see where I might be able to get a Ph.D. in Syriac. As it turns out, there is one place in the United States that has such a program: The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. Certain family needs that had arisen made returning to the U.S. highly desirable at that time, even though I was quite happy in Guatemala. So I started looking into graduate programs. I checked out Spanish, linguistics and Syriac. Ultimately, Syriac won out. So in the summer of 2006, we moved from beautiful rural Guatemala to the crowded, extremely expensive Washington metropolitan area. Silver Spring is a nice place, don't get me wrong, but my goodness, how much cheaper and more pleasant the atmosphere would be if the unversity were located a few hundred miles west! But what the heck, here we are. Our family has adjusted nicely and I am once again going after that Ph.D., though in a field I had not contemplated until recently. It's a lot of fun but also a lot of work.

After I had moved to the area and Dr. Sidney Griffith, CUA's senior professor of Syriac had returned from a trip, I met with him and he gave me a page of Syriac to translate. He needed to see if I had learned enough Syriac on my own to go straight into the readings course, or if I would need to start out in the introductory class. I worked my way through the difficult text (the beginning of Narsai's Homily on the Three Fathers), translating it and parsing the verbs. Father Sidney (this is what we call him, since he is also a priest) considered my work satisfactory, so I enrolled in Syriac readings.

Ay, ay, ay! Syriac grammar isn't excessively hard, but learning to read Syriac texts--that is a challenge! I found that while my linguistic knowledge was good, my ability to figure out what in the world the writer was saying was almost non-existent! To follow Narsai, one had to be intimately familiar with the details of the Christological controversies of the 5th century, and one had to quickly develop a feel for the subtle wordplay loved by Syriac writers. They love symbols and metaphors, and they wrote for an audience that did not have to have everything spelled out for it. However, those of use who are 15 centuries and light-years of culture removed from that audience do have to have a great deal explained. That first semester I was already drowning in a very heavy Advanced Greek class and I was being challenged by a totally new language, Coptic. A little four-line stanza of Narsai sometimes took two hours to translate, and even then I was sure that I had made many errors (and this was confirmed in class). I struggled mightily, managed to learn some bits and pieces of the relevant history and symbolism, and finally, by the middle of the semester, I felt that I was really catching on. But then it was time to switch to a new writer--Ephrem!

Now I'm in my fourth semester at CUA. Understanding texts is less difficult than it was, to be sure, but I feel like I'm only about 10% of the way up the steep slope of the learning curve. I have learned a lot about Syriac symbolism, but I still have a long way to go. Many people who start in this field already have knowledge of patristics and theology, but not me. Oh well, we each bring our strengths and our weaknesses. I am enjoying my studies, but I find that it is very different studying an ancient language that we do not even try to talk in, than studying a modern language like Spanish, in which the first thing we learn is to carry on conversations. In Syriac my studies went from elementary to advanced in a single bound!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spanish: The Long and Winding Road

I will now start a series of posts on individual languages: how I became interested in them and grew in my knowledge of them. It makes sense to start with Spanish, the non-native language in which I have gone the deepest. In case you are wondering, I grew up in an entirely monolingual American English-speaking home. I had no non-English speaking relatives, although we rarely lived near any relatives anyway, since my father was an Air Force officer who was transferred from place to place every couple of years.

I started learning a few Spanish words as early as fourth grade (just numbers, as I recall). I had a little more exposure to it in 5th and 6th grades, but what I consider my serious study of the language began in 9th grade. This was the first language other than English that I studied in depth. It is also the only one other than English in which I have gained real fluency. I am thankful to various high school teachers and college professors for good basic grounding in the language. But credit for gaining fluency has to go to the Guatemalan, Mexican and other Latin American friends and acquaintances (and a very few Spaniards) with whom I have lived and talked, and whose books, newspapers and magazines I have read, for over 25 years now. From cultured scholars to humble Mayan peasants, Spanish has a wide variety of speakers and forms, and I am grateful for all the people with whom I have had (and continue to have) the opportunity to speak the language of Cervantes.

I acquired the basic of elements in high school. I also learned first-hand how dreadful the quality high school instruction can be. Of my four high school teachers, the first was mediocre, the second (who I only had for about 9 weeks) was good, the third was poor, and the fourth was good. The fourth one was a Texan of Mexican origin who taught at my final high school in Oklahoma. Subsequent experience has shown me a bit about why the instructional quality can be so poor. When I was an undergraduate Spanish major at the University of Texas at Arlington, I was amazed to learn that most of the students majoring in the language had only minimal interest in it. There were a few of us who really wanted to learn and did, but we were a small minority. And it was the poorly motivated C students who would say, "Well, if I can't get any other job, I can always get a teaching certificate and teach high school Spanish." Also, I have had occasion to review some high school teaching materials, both in print and online. The quality varies wildly, with "excellent" being a rare level of achievement. Anecdotal evidence of ignorant teachers of foreign languages in America is abundant, so I know that my experience was only unusual in that out of four teachers, two were actually good.

An Aside on High School Spanish Teaching

I don't want this to just sound like a whine about the situation. I often think about how things might be improved. Let's look at the typical training of a high school language teacher. I think my first teacher was an example of this. She was apparently a typical Anglo-American, raised monolingually in English. She majored in Spanish in college and got a teaching certificate. After college she went to Spain as a tourist for six weeks (she showed us slides from her trip). This last was her entire experience in a Spanish-speaking country. Even if she had been an excellent student in college, she simply had not spent enough time immersed in the language to develop fluency or familiarity with the culture and the real use of a lot of vocabulary. One error that she taught us was that tocador was the word for "dining room". She even commented in class that she thought it was an odd word for this meaning, since the verb "to eat" was comer. At the time, I just accepted assumed that she was right, since I certainly did not know otherwise. Sometime later I learned that she was quite wrong: tocador means "dressing table"; comedor (from the expected verb, comer) means "dining room". Why hadn't the teacher just looked in a dictionary?

So, what should this teacher have done to be better prepared overall? First of all, she should have spent a good deal more time immersed in Spanish. Many small, private, reasonably priced language schools around the Spanish-speaking world offer students the chance to live with a family while doing intensive study at the school. If all prospective teachers would spend a month every summer in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica or another Spanish-speaking country, living with a family and taking intensive language classes five days a week, the quality of Spanish instruction in this country would dramatically improve! I recognize that financial constraints might make this difficult, both because the person would have to spend money on the study and because they would lose a lot of time that might be spent working during the summer. So how about this: a scholarship that pays all expenses and gives the student around $2,000 on top of that to make up for lost summer earnings. The government could grant such scholarships to students with a good grade point average (say 3.0 overall and 3.5 in Spanish or whatever language) in exchange for a commitment to teach the language for four years in a public school. The government offers college scholarships for the study of "critical" languages, so why not scholarships to save high school language instruction from disaster? I know, I know... where will the money come from when we're spending $3 billion a week in Iraq? But that's quite another issue and I will spare you a rant about it here.

Back to my experience

After learning as much Spanish as I could in high school, I went on to major in it as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Arlington. My first professor, Dr. Lenard Studerus, was excellent. He taught Advanced Spanish Syntax. It was in this course that I finally got a good grasp on the subjunctive mood. He outlined what proved for me to be a simple, comprehensible set of points for knowing where to use the subjunctive. I talked with him in his office about it, and he said he had developed it, I think with some input from a journal article. But he said he would probably go back to the "old" system, which most students were used to, because most of them could care less about it anyway. Even the Spanish majors had little interest in learning good Spanish. Yegads. Well, I am glad that at least I happened to be in the right class at the right time. More serendipity!


After my first year at UTA, I spent a month in Cuernavaca, Mexico (about an hour south of Mexico City), living with a family, studying Spanish intensively in the mornings and listening to very interesting talks on culture in the afternoon. I also had some time to wander around the town. It was a fascinating experience! It also brought some trials, but overall, it was immensely helpful. When it was over, I felt that I had learned as much in that single month as I had learned in my previous five years of high school and college study.

The most important part of this was not the classroom instruction (it turned out I was beyond most of what they taught), but living with a family, learning to understand the daily conversation of real people in their ordinary lives. That was how I learned that ahorita did not mean "right now" but "in a while". That was how I learned that the teaching of English in Mexico was no better than the teaching of Spanish in the U.S. (One of the children in the family had been told by his English teacher that "spelling" meant campo in Spanish, though this word actually means "field" or "countryside".) It was there that I learned that Mexicans like to say bueno in response to most any statement made over the phone. It was there that I learned that the possession of an undergraduate degree was a fact denoted by a title preceding one's surnames for the rest of one's life in any and every context (thus, the governor of Tamaulipas state was "Engineer" So-and-so, not just "Governor" or "Mr." So-and-so). I could go on and on. But the main point is that while I might, with luck, have picked up one or two of these facts in my university classes, I would never have picked them all up, nor would they have had the same impact on me, if I had not lived in a Spanish-speaking country with a Spanish-speaking family in which no one knew any appreciable amount of English.

After receiving my B.A. I immediately began studying for my M.A. in linguistics. For some time, I had fond hopes of going to Irian Jaya, Indonesia and of writing my doctoral dissertation on one of those languages. But as it turned out, I went to Guatemala to do research on a Mayan language. I arrived in the Land of Eternal Spring on May 31, 1984, at the ripe old age of 23.

Yet More Immersion

Just before going to Guatemala, I spent another month living with a Mexican family, this time in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, in northern Mexico. It was another intense culture and language learning experience, followed by about two weeks of travel in Mexico.

When I arrived in Guatemala, I was full of energy and enthusiasm. But I soon underwent culture shock while spending a month living with a Guatemalan family in the capital, with a short break to visit a very remote Mayan town. If living in Mexico had been a change of pace, living in Guatemala was even more of a change. The countries border each other, but their cultures are very different. Guatemala has a large Mayan population (around 50%, though exact figures vary from source to source). Mayans are nothing like Latins. Even those who have learned to speak Spanish still have grown up with a very different set of cultural norms. I learned about Guatemalan accents, Guatemalan vocabulary, Guatemalan customs, and being searched by soldiers in rural areas, since they were trying to impede the progress of the guerrilla insurgency then active.

I lived in Guatemala for six years, until mid-1990, with a break of a few weeks to get married in May 1985, and one semester (Spring 1986) to finish my Masters. There I learned about all sorts of fascinating details of Spanish. One was the journalistic use of the past subjunctive for the simple past tense when the reporter assumed that the fact being reported was well known to the readers. For example, one would read, "Fulano de Tal, quien
fuera ministro de agricultura, compareció ante la bancada del partido X hoy...", meaning "Joe Blow, who was formerly the minister of agriculture, appeared before the members of party X [in Congress] today...". There was no grammatical environment here that would have led me to expect the subjunctive fuera instead of the indicative fue. Was it a typo? Well, as it turned out, it was not a typo. A search of that exceedingly useful book American-Spanish Syntax by Charles Kany turned up the explanation of this usage that I mentioned just before giving the example. This and a thousand other details I learned by living for several years in Guatemala. This kind of learning is almost impossible without immersion in a language.

Advanced Studies

In 1990 I moved my young family (wife, 3-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter) to Gainesville, Florida, to study for a Ph.D. in Spanish linguistics. These studies were exactly what I needed at that point. They helped me polish a number of rough spots that still remained in my Spanish. They helped me arrive at a level of knowledge of the language at which I could write fairly elegantly, not just express myself clumsily. Among other things, I read the entire poem of
El Cid in the original medieval Spanish. I received outstanding instruction in the finer points of Spanish syntax from Dr. John Lipski (now at Penn State). I also learned the outlines (and a lot of details!) of the development of the Romance languages from Dr. David Pharies (still at the University of Florida). And I learned about the details of the development of Spanish from Dr. Enrique Mallén (now at Sam Houston State University).


Although I did very well in my studies at UF, I started to incur some debt and decided I should seek employment to properly support my growing family (number 3 was on the way). I got a job as an editor of Spanish translations at Vida Publishers in Deerfield Beach, Florida. There, I had the opportunity to work with excellent colleagues and I learned a vast amount. I started out as a corrector of translations from English to Spanish. Not only did I get to fix a lot of atrocities in Spanish, but I had to continually delve deeply into the finer stylistic points of the language so that I could more readily distinguish between mediocre and good style and usage. I worked at Vida for 6 1/2 years and another 3 years at Sociedades Bíblicas Unidas (Latin American office of United Bible Societies). In both of these positions I was stretched and greatly improved.

In December 2001, I returned to Guatemala for what turned out to be 4 1/2 years. By this time my Spanish was very fluent and reasonably polished, but I always feel like I have ever more to learn. I regularly read
Prensa Libre, Guatemala's leading newspaper, online, and I still do translation as a form of gainful employment.


I realize this has been a rather long narrative, but I wanted to explain to the world how much time and work is involved in going from totally monolingual to very bilingual. I have read only one other first-hand description of this process, written Robert M. Laughlin as part of the introduction to his monumental
The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantan. I even had the privilege of talking with him about it in Mexico about 1989. I told him how interesting, even inspiring, it was, and he said he didn't know why more authors did not include such accounts in the introductions to dictionaries. Well, this is not the introduction to a dictionary, but if you are a sufficiently hardcore lover of languages to have stuck with me this far, I hope you have found this narrative of interest, regardless of how far along you are in your learning of one language or another.

Howdy! The Language Fan Introduces Himself

Greetings, readers of this brand new blog. I have decided to try my hand at this mode of self-expression. I don't know how it will evolve, but for now it is enough to just get started.

I have loved languages ever since I was 7 or 8 years old. That is nearly 40 years now! When I was in elementary school, I would spend hours tracing the Greek and Russian alphabets, and some Chinese characters, from books in my school's library. I traced them over and over. It was fascinating! By the time I was 9, I found I could read both of the alphabets. I would copy phrases in such exotic languages as Twi from the back on children's books on the countries where they were spoken. In junior high I copied lists of Latin and Greek roots used in English. I graduated, by 8th or 9th grade, to copying lengthy explanations of writing systems, such as several pages on the Thai alphabet from a Thai dictionary. I copied probably a hundred Navajo verb paradigms. I cared little about sports, so while other boys were spending their time on things like that, I was busy accumulating myriad details on languages.

(To be accurate, I was not a total geek and bookworm as a kid. I played plenty of informal games with my friends in our various neighborhoods--chicken, football, basketball. I was also an avid member of the marching band throughout high school. And I was in Boy Scouts from 5th-9th grades. But I did spend a lot more time than most kids on intellectual activities.)

Various serendipitous events have provided unexpected good turns in my life. The first such even was the one that led me to my interest in languages. One day when I was in second grade (I can't remember if it was before or after my eighth birthday), my dad came home from work with a little challenge for my brother and me. [Note to all you hypercorrectors: "me," not "I," is the correct pronoun here, since the phrase "my brother and me" is the object of a preposition, not the subject of a sentence.] He had written a short message using a cipher. He gave us the message and the key to the cipher. We worked through the message, which I have never forgotten: "I have four pennies for both of you." The idea of writing something in a secret way absolutely enthralled me! The idea of writing things in a secret way soon led me to foreign languages. After all, if I wrote something in another language, no one else (that I knew) could understand it! Both cryptography and languages fascinated me for years, and I wrote some ciphers and even rather voluminous codes. I also devised increasingly sophisticated artificial languages, though my interest in doing this waned before I reached anything too advanced; real languages had started to occupy my attention. Finally, about my freshman year in high school, my interest in cryptography pretty well fizzled. My interest in languages had grown greatly, and I was more interested in communicating than in disguising communication.

This is probably quite enough of an introduction to the development of my interest in languages. I will close with the note that during all my years growing up, I only met one other person my age with an interest in languages: David B. We met in eighth grade and kept in touch through college, but eventually lost touch. Languages: fascinating, wonderful, but sadly underappreciated in the U.S. of A. But popular or not, they are my thing!