Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"As If We Sing to One Another All Day"

 In the introduction to his book, The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky explains the amazing phenomenon that comes with natural language acquisition:
Every speaker, intuitively and accurately, courses gracefully through immensely subtle manipulations of sound. We not only indicate, for example, where the accent is in a word like "question," but also preserve that accent while adding the difference between "Was that a question?" and "Yes, that was a question."

It is almost as if we sing to one another all day.

We do not need to be taught such things: if they were taught in school, we would find them hard and make a mess of them.

In this regard, the way we use the sounds of language is like the way we use "down" and "up" with certain English verbs: I have never heard a child, however small, or anyone, however stupid, make a mistake when discriminating among such expressions as: "Can you put me up?" and its cousins—"Don't put me down," "It brings me down," "I wasn't brought up that way," "Then what it comes down to is, why bring it up?" and so forth. If we learned these distinctions by making charts and memorizing them, or by rules, we would blunder.

It is the same with what Robert Frost calls "sentence sounds." Because we have learned to deal with the sound patterns organically, for practical goals, from before we can remember, without reflection or instruction or conscious analysis, we all produce the sounds, and understand them, with great efficiency and subtle nuance. [. . . It is a] skill, acquired like the ability to walk and run [. . . ]

The hearing-knowledge we bring to a line of poetry is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants. If we tried to learn such knowledge by elaborate rules or through brute, systematic memorization, then just as with the distinctions involved in putting up with me and putting me up, we would not be able to use them as fluently as we do.
Wouldn't it be lovely to acquire second languages in such an automatic and natural way as our first? We can't perfectly recreate the process from first to second languages, but we can approximate it. This is the genius behind the highly successful methods of Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone language learning. (And, of course, there is actual immersion. But that is not always an option.)

As Pinsky goes on to explain in his introduction, there is a time and a place for going on to learn and attend to the rules, rhythms, and reasons behind language use. To attend to these intricacies is the essential purpose of his book. When we become aware of the patterns—be they grammatical, structural, or syllabic—that underlie and govern the use of language, our ability to employ and enjoy language increases.

Language is primarily and essentially spoken and heard, and only secondarily becomes abstracted to symbols to be written and read. We naturally learn our first language through listening to words and phrases spoken in context. Gradually we begin to imitate the sounds and find ourselves speaking. Only much later do we learn the alphabet, phonics, etc. to read and write.

Precisely because of our propensity to invert the natural process of language learning in traditional textbook approaches, the learning of second languages, especially so called "dead languages," can be a tough slog. First you learn the abstracted symbols—alphabet, reading, and writing—and then, if you succeed wildly, you may figure out how to pronounce individual words and phrases without every time doing the mental gymnastics of transliteration/phonics, accent, and pitch navigation. 

Learning a language backwards, by the book, does not get us to the easy fluency and delight of a living language learned through hearing and speaking. We resort to studying a textual artifact rather than entering and participating in a living word. As a result, we "find [the subtle manipulations of sound] hard and make a mess of them." We blunder.

Is this a necessary drudgery, or is it due to a lack of imagination? Innovators like Pimsleur and Rosetta founder, Allen Stoltzfus, show us what imagination can do.

With imagination and innovation, we keep the song alive.