Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stepping it up a bit.

All of a sudden I'm posting more often than once a month. How come? I'm not really sure, but I used to enjoy writing very much. When I stopped being able to actually write and was forced to dictate instead, I guess the pleasure of writing more or less disappeared, because dictating isn't writing. It's completely different. What was supposed to be unspoken, written words is all of a sudden turned into false spoken language, and spoken language is very much different from its written counterpart. So you see, it's a question of two worlds interfering with one another - and I would very much have preferred to keep them separated.

Plus, I don't like things I don't feel good at. Who does really? I have the impression from school that you are supposed to enjoy difficult things ("these exercises will probably be boring for you, they will be too easy" always seemed stupid to me), things that you are no good at, but I always hated physics, and I was crap at it, whereas I loved writing, because I was good at it. Then I grew older but my writing did not evolve with me and now it doesn't feel special in any way anymore. I guess everyone has those things, "I had so much potential when I was a kid, then it all went away".

But that was only part of what I wanted to talk about. I skimmed through some language blogs today, and I realized how much I miss reading them and how much I miss wasting too much time on language forums while thinking I should be studying languages instead. It also made me realize I should be more ambitious with my other studies and about my general culture, and no, all of that isn't really possible to combine, so I don't really know what to do. However, I felt there were two things I wanted to share on this blog. Two very basic things, those kind of things you actually know without really realizing it, and that become very obvious when someone puts it in plain writing.

The first is about READING. Many people seem to be very hesitant about reading in foreign languages. When someone catches me reading a Russian book in class they are always impressed for some reason. Why is it people think reading is so difficult? It's just a text, it's there, it's not going anywhere, you can read it for as long as you like and using whatever tools you have. What is so difficult about that? I think the important thing to realize is that you don't have to read a text in any specific way. It's perfectly okay to switch between strategies, to go from reading something very meticulously to just skimming through it. No one says you have to read an entire book while understanding 100% of the words - that's not the only way to read a book. You can just as well read one page where you make sure you understand all the words, and then read five more making sure you understand what it's about, regardless of how many words you understand. Books are friendly, don't be afraid of them.

Secondly, USAGE. If you never use a language, you will never know when you make mistakes. Apparently Stephen Kaufman said something about this recently, and this kind of surprised me because generally I don't like much of what he says, most likely because I think he looks too smug. Ehem. Anyway, this is absolutely true. While you are reading or listening, you aren't creating anything on your own, you aren't using the language actively, so you don't really realize exactly what you know and what you don't know. And usually, no one corrects your listening or reading unless it's some sort of a test. You may read something and understand it perfectly, but then try to say it yourself and get it all wrong. It's like only reading Russian books without stress marks and then try to speak Russian and realize you can't pronounce anything correctly, because you have always taken for granted that this or that word has that particular stress, whereas as a matter of fact... it doesn't. Or perhaps you never really noticed the difference between ничего and нечего, because when you read it, you read it all like ничего... Those are just small and simple examples. A big and horrifying example would on the other hand be Russian verb aspects. You read and you have no idea you are missing 500 nuances, but you can't really care either. It only becomes a problem when you have to use the damned things yourself.

But what am I doing here? I am supposed to be analyzing 19th-century texts on nationalism.


  1. I have always wondered why having to speak out the words doesn't bother you ... now I know that it does.

    Reading in a foreign language *is* a big deal, because it takes a lot of effort. So it takes serious motivation to do it. And people might find it unusual that you're doing it if they don't understand what motivates you.

    I've experienced that not with reading, but with not giving up Greek. On the one hand, people were amazed, on the other, they said I was weird. Unfortunately, not even I understood what kept me going, and now that I'm running out of steam, I'm not sure what to do about it :(

  2. Aaargh! Words, long, difficult words! It could be them Russian squigglies that impress people so much. Did you give Taras Bulba a try? Apparently, Steve says and writes a lot about many things :)

  3. If you never use the language, you will never make any mistakes...

  4. Argh, sorry for taking so long to reply!

    Szabolcs, I find it takes more effort to try to speak a language you hardly know, or to try to understand what someone says to you.

    We have the same problem with Greek and Hungarian :(

    Reineke, those people are students of Russian. The squigglies should be familiar to them :) I tried listening to TB, but didn't get far... I will try *reading* it though!

  5. Salut! :)

    Je viens d´acheter:

    Je ne sais pas si ça t´interesse, mais c´est une petite merveille! :)

  6. That second paragraph absolutely struck a chord with me. I feel incredibly remorse neglecting my Japanese despite it being my major.

    As for the main thoughts of the post - I totally agree with both statements!
    Damn, now I feel like getting off my ass and doing more learning instead of reading your blog :P