Friday, April 24, 2009

couper la difficulté en quatre

I got a wonderful e-mail from a Russian reader, Elena Davos, who has kindly allowed me to quote some of it:


It all started with “The Last Samurai”.

In 2002 I worked as PR manager for the Sheraton hotel in Moscow, Russia and met a lot of interesting people, at work and after-hours. One beautiful winter evening a British journalist invited me for a cup of tea to his studio not far from the hotel. We talked about everything and about nothing, drinking our tea in the kitchen as many Russians do. And I asked something, and he answered something, and I told something and it was time to say goodbye. So he went to his living room and came back with a big yellow book. On the cover of the book there was a picture of a boy holding a book.

And the journalist said something like:

You know, may be, being a single mom of a 5 y.o. girl, you will find this stuff interesting. It is about how to teach kids foreign languages. I think you’ll enjoy it.

[... ]


For one point the journalist was right however. Having finished We Never Get Off at Sloane Square I quickly taught my daughter Greek letters.

It was not like with Ludo. She could not wake up at 7 am and ask for a book to work with. But anyway she learned how to read in French and in Russian using the method you described in the book: highlighting the words she knew with a yellow Stabilo. Writing with Latin letters Russian words. Asking me millions of questions I didn’t know the answer to. I’m not (at all) a patient teacher, I wasn’t born to be a teacher, I never wanted to be a teacher. But somehow “couper la difficulté en quatre” helped me. It helped me with my daughter; it helped me with my son. During my Russian lessons in Paris it helped me too. But I’m piping into Volume Two, as Psmith once said, so -

…as at that time my daughter liked to listen to my stories, I told her some bits of what happened in Odyssey. She immediately asked who Homer was, and it blocked me again, and I had to stop, to reread, and to describe several points of view, about Unitarians and others, as simple as possible.

It breaks my heart to tell the truth, but I wasn’t persistent enough and she doesn’t remember how to read Greek letters now. She still remembers though what happens in Odyssey 5, 6 & 7. She started Japanese this winter. She is 11 y. o.

I’m happily looking forward to teaching languages to my 3 y.o. son who is bilingual and twice as stubborn as my daughter.




9 comments:

nsiqueiros said...

I liked this little email excerpt.

Interestingly enough, I just got another copy of The Last Samurai in the mail yesterday, and I've already had to lend it out today. The whole reason I had to order another copy is that my other copy found a new home with a friend of mine. I can't help but think of your experience with The Internet and Everyone.

Anonymous said...

Vous voulez dire "couper les cheveux en quatre", ce qui est l'expression correcte, et bien plus difficile à réaliser que couper la difficulté en quatre.

Helen DeWitt said...

Anon, mais non, pas du tout, c'est la phrase du père de Yo Yo Ma, qui a réussi à l'enseigner à jouer Bach au piano à deux ans. Ce qu'il a fait, paraît-il, c'était de le faire maîtriser chaque jour un très petit morceau - disons deux ou trois notes seulement. Si on "coupe la difficulté en quatre" même un enfant de deux ans peut apprendre deux ou trois notes par jour.

Anonymous said...

OK (LUI enseigner)

Helen DeWitt said...

argh, LUI, bien sûr, je suis un peu distraite...

Siganus Sutor said...

Oulala, Anonymous, don't be so grumpy, or you might look like a true Frenchman. And why should one expression be more correcte than another? Is language something that ought to remain frozen for ever and ever?

Helen DeWitt said...

SS, I don't think Anon was suggesting that French should remain frozen forever, merely pointing out the usage that is currently followed by native speakers of the language.

bernardomoraes said...

Maye I'll try it too – but my L ( Lorenzo) is only 2 and maybe it is too soon.

nsiqueiros said...

So, the friend I lent my paperback copy of The Last Samurai to, well his wife apparently confiscated the book from him. She said he can have it back when she's done reading it. According to my friend, his wife loves it. Just thought I'd let you know.