Wednesday, November 17, 2004

What You Say 

I have been helping my 9-year-old with Spanish. It reminds me as we tangle with conjugating verbs - hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos, hablais, hablan -- that how one says something affects how one thinks about it.

Verb conjugation is not something English speakers know. It has been difficult to get her mind to expand to a concept of a verb ending that signifies an actor. I kept telling her that once it clicked, she would never have trouble with it again. It's a different way of thinking in Romance languages.

That's easy to say but not easy to understand. The notion of a familiar "you" versus a formal "you" doesn't exist in English. One has to put on the culture of the speaker to grasp the distinction. I warned her that when she starts Latin in a few years she will also have to know noun declensions as well as verb conjugations. This was too much to bear. But, in my long ago and exceedingly vague memories of translating Cicero, there was grace in the formation of a Latin sentence that English cannot equal. There also was emphasis that escapes English linearity. Only one great English writer I can think of matched Latin expression -- John Henry Cardinal Newman. It is said he rewrote his sentences up to 90 times before they achieved the finish he sought.

It is easy for us with simple journalistic sentences to think we are universal communicators. We aren't. We miss the subtleties that are second nature to native speakers.

I wish language instruction in the US were better than it is. We need cross-cultural training to be true citizens of the earth. Instead, we tend to assume everyone will learn English. So far, we've gotten away with that arrogance.


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