Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Linguistic Disability: Not an Excuse?

Google Translate
The Real Expert

In reaction to a recent article by Daniel Pipes at National Review Online, "Arabist Snobs: Languages are helpful, but don’t guarantee good analysis" (November 22, 2011), a dispute broke out over at the Marmot's Hole concerning the necessity of knowing the language of a country before passing oneself off as an expert, with some commenters implying that without knowledge of the language, an individual would have almost nothing of value to say, and suggesting that anyone who's lived in Korea for a decade or more really has no excuse for not knowing the language. Being one of those without excuse for my linguistic ignorance, I chose to take up the gauntlet, and wrote:
Some of us came to Korea at an older age, are very busy with work, and perhaps have little talent for learning foreign languages.

That describes me.

Of course, I don't claim to be a Korea expert . . . though after being with a Korean woman for nearly twenty years, living constantly in Korea for over ten years, teaching Korean students almost daily for over ten years, reading about Korean issues daily for over ten years, working with my wife as a translation team for articles and books from Korean into English for nearly ten years, and serving off and on as a Daesan Foundation judge concerning the literary quality of translated Korean literature for about five years, among other things, I might occasionally venture an opinion about Korea.

I'd also add that if we were to limit ourselves to expressing opinions only upon topics that we’ve studied deeply enough to be considered experts, we wouldn't have much to say, nor would there be much intercommunication across boundaries of expertise.

My friend Hamel, who is brilliant at languages and speaks flawless Korean, responded:
[I]t might not be unreasonable to expect that [such] a person would know more than taxi/supermarket Korean.

I replied:
Hamel, just read the first part again:

"Some of us came to Korea at an older age, are very busy with work, and perhaps have little talent for learning foreign languages.

That describes me."

Those of you with a gift for foreign languages simply have no experience with how difficult learning a foreign language can be for some of us.

You object that "it might not be unreasonable to expect that a person would know more than taxi/supermarket Korean."

Perhaps not, but life is not always reasonable, nor are talents reasonably distributed across populations.

Just try to imagine something for which you have no talent and which you find deeply frustrating. Perhaps math or chemistry or analytic philosophy. Could you master it? Perhaps . . . if you made it your consuming passion. But doing so would require all your time and energy.

For some of us, learning a foreign language is like that.

I don't doubt that those individuals with great linguistic ability, who can pick up a language within a year or so, are baffled at those of us who can't learn a language without years of intensive work, but there it is.

I'll just have to keep relying on Google Translate . . . and on Sun-Ae, my beloved Wortschatz.

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12 Comments:

At 6:37 AM, Blogger dhr said...

little talent for learning foreign languages. That describes me

yeah, just trifles like ancient English, NT Greek, Coptic... German...
;-)

 
At 6:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

My Coptic was good, my Koine Greek passable, my German okay, and my Old English nonexistent . . .

But except for German, I don't need to speak these.

As for German, I succeeded due to its connection to English.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:15 PM, Blogger dhr said...

As for German, I succeeded

I know -- or rather, I already knew.

:-)

 
At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

One reason I do well (enough) as a language teacher is --- I suck badly at learning them. I had trouble with French with English being my native language. I've failed miserably at learning Korean - and that is with 4 years of college Korean under my belt (showing an education in something doesn't mean you learn much about it)...

There are a variety of reasons, external and internal, why I failed to learn Korean despite the classes taken, being married to a Korean for 14 years, and having lived in Korea for a total of about 7 years, but much of it stems from being below average in ability to learn a foreign language.

I've thought about why I failed and about what percentage of my students might suffer from similar limitations and how I might adjust teaching methods to compensated.

When I was in high school, we were talking with a math teacher after school one day about why a few smart students were failing geometry. He said some people just can't picture it. That their brain wasn't wired to understand something abstract like that. I couldn't understand it, because some of us considered it one of the easiest math classes.

Then there was art class. I don't care how much time I devoted to it, I'd always look stupid. This became clear by the time I reached 2nd grade. Zero aptitude for art.

But, I tell my high school students, I wish I had taken art when I was in middle and high school, before the teenage brain growth spurt had burnt out, because even if I sucked at art, the effort would have stimulated and developed areas of my brain that needed some beefing up. (There is a good documentary about brain development and the growth spurt I play early in the school year to my English-speaking classes to (hopefully) motivate them.)

 
At 3:57 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

Age - My experience has confirmed what I'd always heard about language learning being difficult the older you get. Before, I understood it as related to toddlers and early elementary school kids whose minds are like sponges and who are busily processing their native languages.

But, I realized some years ago that I've lost the ability to memorize like I could as a college student and younger. I wonder why that happens. What happens in the brain to influence that? Anyway, the difficulty in retaining vocabulary has been one of the biggest handicaps in learning Korean for me.

 
At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

Growing stupid since 27

 
At 8:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott, I guess I'm pretty stupid, too. I quit caring some time ago . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:05 PM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

Golf. OMG. I don't even have much of a desire to get on the kinks anymore. I hate seeing others hitting long, straight drives consistently with absolutely no effort at all.Why do I excel at other physical skills but can't manage to hit a dimpled ball more than 170 yards? Why, why...WHY!

Great post, Jeff. The narcissism in this present era is frightening!Planet Earth is in great need of a dose of humility.

Heck, I've quit "debating" online for the most part - I know where each argument ultimately leads because I've been there so many times. I find myself just wanting to mock anymore.

I've got to stop in more often. I miss your pragmatism.

 
At 3:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I didn't know you golfed. Does Horseshoe Bend still have a course? Or do you head for Mountain Home.

Anyway, we all have our shortcomings . . .

Am I pragmatic? I suppose I am. But I admire the deep thinkers.

Good to hear from you again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

I need a better understanding of expert - as in a generally used term (like in blogs) vs a specific term meaning someone with expertise.

What I mean is - I've been around professors enough to learn they have expertise in the narrow area of their phd and published research, but as you stray from that particular subject, they quickly become just like everybody else --- with the same percentage of them giving intelligent (or ignorant) opinions on other topics as the average adult whose read some books and used his head for more than a hair farm.

 
At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

who's :)

Quick typing grammar mistakes look much worse when your opining about intelligence or education...

 
At 4:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What you're looking for is wisdom . . . and a better spell-check feature.

Jeffery Hodges

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