Thursday, September 10, 2009

mute inglorious Nabokovs

Went to a meeting / dinner at Golden Parachutes, a gallery in Kreuzberg run by Jesi Khadivi and Paul Tyree-Francis. Paul and Jesi are planning to open the space to anyone who is interested in offering a course, seminar or other event; the idea was to talk about some possibilities.

This coincided, as it happens, with Obama's speech on education and also with a piece in the Guardian on the severe decline in British universities of degrees in modern languages, following the removal of the language requirement at GCSE. I write in that context.

One of my ideas is to offer a two-hour (well, maybe three) class called Mute Inglorious Nabokovs. Nabokov was taught English and French from an early age; this early exposure to languages other than his mother tongue seems to have been important in his formation as a writer. In Speak, Memory he talks about the entertainment offered by working through a little grammar book, in which the student started on simple sentences, could look forward to ever more exciting grammatical features, and at the end was able to read a simple story. He remembers sitting inside while a servant swept the gravel walk outside; he wonders whether she might not have been happier sweeping the walk than driving a tractor in later years under the Soviets.

This passage always makes me think: But perhaps she was a mute inglorious Nabokov. Perhaps the servant, too, had gifts which would have benefited from reading an introduction to English culminating in an adventure for little Ned.

One thing that's certain, anyway, is that most schoolchildren do not get this kind of chance at an early age. More generally, it seems to me, there is never a point at which people are encouraged to try a range of languages, and in particular to see what it is like to read a short passage in each by a great writer.

It seemed to me that one could try something like this: introduce three languages of increasing difficulty,* beginning with the simple challenges presented by reading, then working through a short text.

So, for instance, one might start with

1. Italian. (A good starting point for the many people whose first second language was Spanish or French.) One introduces the principles of Italian orthography, so that the reader, looking at a text, knows how it shd be pronounced; one then goes through a short passage from Calvino's Invisible Cities, providing relevant grammar and vocabulary.

One would then go on to

2. Ancient Greek. Alphabet not dissimilar to ours; the student still starts with a big advantage. The object is to work through the first 7 lines of the Iliad.

One points out that the Greek alphabet can be divided into true friends, false friends and aliens. There are letters that look familiar and do, in fact, represent roughly the sounds represented by their modern lookalikes (α β δ ε ι κ ο τ υ ς Α Β Ε Ι Κ Μ Ν Ο Τ Ζ); letters that look familiar but represent different sounds (γ η ν ρ χ ω Η Ρ Χ Υ); exciting letters no longer in use outside mathematics (ζ θ λ μ π σ φ ψ ξ Γ Δ Θ Λ Π Ξ Φ Ψ Ω). One starts the student off with exercises spelling English words in Greek letters, moves on to introduce Greek pronunciation and some Greek words, and then goes through the first 7 lines of the Iliad.

(One does not need all these letters for Iliad 1-7.)

(Sceptics may think starting with Homeric Greek is really jumping in at the deep end, but it is only 7 lines. )

One would then go on to, as it might be

3. Arabic. Totally different script, with many letters representing sounds not found in English. Also, a Semitic language! (How lovely!) But this, too, is less difficult than it looks; one starts on the script, using a version of the method described above, introduces the new sounds, and then works through a short passage - I was thinking, maybe, a few lines from Ibn Rushd on tragedy.

On reflection 2 hours seems wildly optimistic and even 3 somewhat optimistic. Seems as though explaining how a Semitic language works would not be the work of a couple of minutes. Luckily, though, I can now use Jesi as a guinea pig and try to achieve a more realistic sense of how it is all to be done.

Once the materials have been properly worked out they can be posted online and also, I suppose, published in book form (though it wd need an accompanying CD). Just the sort of book one wants on a long flight. The sort of book one could give to a child who has been dragged to the beach on vacation because younger siblings are not too old for the beach.

* I'm thinking primarily, obviously, of anglophone readers, also German readers since we are sending up a trial balloon in Berlin.

PS Hello visitors from Guardian Books Blog! If you'd like to be sent pages from the beta release as they're developed, do drop me a line!

5 comments:

Language said...

Sceptics may think starting with Homeric Greek is really jumping in at the deep end

Personally, I think Homeric Greek is much easier than Attic, despite the variant forms and occasional oddities; the structures are simple and there's lots of repetition, and of course the story is great. I always recommend Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners, which takes you slowly and comfortably through the first book of the Iliad.

Helen DeWitt said...

What a terrific suggestion! I don't know that book, but will check it out.

Anonymous said...

Funny when you buy a book for 1 pound 50 in the charity shop, then immediately see a mention of it on the internet! I grabbed a copy of the Pharr book last week (second edition published in 1959; the original came out in 1920), and haven't got further than the introduction, in which he makes what sounds to me, in my almost-total ignorance of Greek, like a very good case for using Homer and not Xenophon as the default author when introducing the language.

The mute-inglorious-Nabokovs idea sounds wonderful: wish I'd had such a book as a youngster. One of the many things wrong with languages in the British school system is the way that different languages each come in their own watertight little syllabuses, and you get no overview of how they relate to and differ from one another (I learned Latin and French at school; these courses were almost totally independent of one another so there was little opportunity to use knowledge of one as a way of getting some leverage on the other). —Steve

The Steve said...

I second (third?) the Clyde Pharr recommendation, though I've never seen it so cheap. We used Athenaze in my Greek courses in the US and at UCL (though I think my uni has switched again to something else). A good series, but learning Greek (unlike, for the most part, Latin) is complicated by dialectical difficulties, and Homeric Greek is definitely a better way to start since reading the Iliad is a natural goal. Attic Greek is useful if you want to read Plato, etc. Koine might also be useful. Why not toss Japanese into the mix? I find the grammar not so hard to explain, and you can make it seem much less alien pretty quickly with some basic instruction in how kana relate to kanji. Since you're being ambitious!

Helen DeWitt said...

I love the idea of moving on to Japanese. I think it would take more than an hour, though, to introduce a text in a language with two syllabaries and a set of ideograms. If I knew Chinese I would include Chinese, but I don't. Yet.