4.0469 Learning Languages, Part I (4/97>

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 11 Sep 90 23:24:39 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0469. Tuesday, 11 Sep 1990.

(1) Date: Tue, 11 Sep 90 11:24:56 EDT (28 lines)
From: Robert Hollander <bobh@phoenix.Princeton.EDU>
Subject: Re: 4.0468 The Importance of Learning Languages

(2) Date: Tue, 11 Sep 90 09:45 CDT (20 lines)
From: Michael Ossar <MLO@KSUVM>
Subject: language abolitionist at Lehigh

(3) Date: Tue, 11 Sep 90 10:38:07 EDT (20 lines)
From: "Adam C. Engst" <PV9Y@CORNELLA>
Subject: Re: 4.0468 The Importance of Learning Languages

(4) Date: Mon, 10 Sep 90 21:45:16 EDT (29 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: learning languages

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Tue, 11 Sep 90 11:24:56 EDT
From: Robert Hollander <bobh@phoenix.Princeton.EDU>
Subject: Re: 4.0468 The Importance of Learning Languages

To second my colleague Clarence Brown I can report that, having endured
a (consciously) Rousseauist primary school from which I issued at age
thirteen literally not knowing what a noun or a verb was (the school
did not only forbid the teaching of foreign languages, but insisted on
teaching people their own language non-analytically), I went to a first-
rate secondary school. The first thing I did was flunk, in my first
marking period, English, French, and Latin. I finally caught on to
what grammar meant from Latin, and from then on began to learn languages.

Princeton came close to abolishing the language requirement in the heady
sixties. Some of us helped it hold on and through that period (I think
only Dartmouth and Princeton, among the "Ivies," did so). As unpleasant
as such requirements are for all concerned, to think of removing them is
not a responsible act. The recent burgeoning of Latin in some inner-city
schools might be a clue to people in charge of curricula: it is one of the
best and most accessible ways to teach people LANGUAGE (Greek, Russian, etc.
will do just as well, but are too difficult). Latin is the perfect
combination of foreign and familiar. We hear so much talk about "empower-
ment" these days, mainly from people who want to make curricula more
politically conscious and, as far as I can see, less difficult. Being
in command of one's own language is the most "empowering" thing we, as
teachers, can help our students achieve. Clarence Brown, by the way,
is teaching a course for our majors in Comparative Literature on...
how to write. Bless his heart.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------27----
Date: Tue, 11 Sep 90 09:45 CDT
From: Michael Ossar <MLO@KSUVM>
Subject: language abolitionist at Lehigh

I completely agree with Clarence Brown. Let me add one more comment.
There are very many people in the world and lots of them are
intelligent. Many of these intelligent people are having good and
important ideas and are not publishing them in English. It takes a good
deal of chutzpa to say that Lehigh engineers (or arts students, for that
matter) don't need to know what anybody else in the world is thinking if
it hasn't been translated into English. I remember reading some years
ago in the New York Times that some Russian graduate student at an
institute in Siberia solved an imprortant mathematical problem (with
practical implications for cryptanalysis) called something like "the
travelling salesman" problem, and that American mathematicians remained
ignorant of this for some time because so few of them could read Russian
journals (I believe the journal in question is not one that is routinely
translated). The fact that it takes many years for a student to learn
to speak a foreign language well is not an argument for not learing it at
all or for not learning to read it.
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------29----
Date: Tue, 11 Sep 90 10:38:07 EDT
From: "Adam C. Engst" <PV9Y@CORNELLA>
Subject: Re: 4.0468 The Importance of Learning Languages

I'd agree that foreign languages are an excellent way to improve one's
English abilities. Perhaps the best course I took at Cornell was Matt
Neuburg's Greek Composition course, which is one of those subjects that
undergraduates often remember with dread after the fact. Instead, I
remember fondly having huge arguments about whether or not the imperfect
was more appropriate than the aorist in such-and-such sentence. Both were
possible, but you had to really delve into the meaning of the English
sentence before you could decide on the best possible method translating
into Greek. What made the task even more enjoyable is that Greek is a
verb-based language, whereas English is a noun-based language (forgive my
ignorance if I'm overgeneralizing). Occassionally one came across a
sentence in English that could be rendered into Greek with only several
perfectly chosen words. Such an elegant language, lack of word order and all!

Adam C. Engst pv9y@cornella.cit.cornell.edu
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------40----
Date: Mon, 10 Sep 90 21:45:16 EDT
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: learning languages

Clarence Brown notes that learning languages other than English helps
one's English. Good point. Latin certainly did that for me, as it was my
first foreign language and was presented in a highly systematic way. The
real point against the philistines' abolition of "useless" or at least
not actively used languages is quite different, however. In a world in
which gaining wealth and importance has nothing at all to do with
learning, much less wisdom, we cannot argue successfully for a subject
based on its discernible utility. We accept that basis for the argument
and we are lost.

It has always struck me that what one gets from studying a language, even
a difficult one such as Greek, is so out of proportion to the effort that
there should be no question of why. But I guess if you're numb, the most
loving caress is meaningless.

Is there a link here to the question of whether computers make scholars
better at their craft, or at least better at turning things out?
Shouldn't there be more attention paid to how use of the machine changes
the nature of what we do, as has been suggested? Its application as a
communications device would then receive much more attention, and
perhaps respect, than it has. But we'd have to give due place to the
role of play in learning. Computers are so much fun, esp. as a rhetorical

Willard McCarty