vrijdag, oktober 15, 2004

Languages and some history

Class today was interesting. My classmates were perilously close to an open revolt.

Before I go any further, this is where I have to say that I like our teacher very much. She has a great sense of humor. I think. I mean, how can I be certain when she speaks only Dutch during the class and I don't really understand what she's saying? Still, she makes me laugh. And Marco, who is from Italy and has (I think) a good sense of humor, laughs too.

There are good and bad things about a teacher only speaking a language you're trying to learn during the classes in which you're trying to learn that language. Overall, it's ok; although it can be exhausting. On the other hand, when a teacher is trying to discuss the form and placement of a substantive direct object which is preceded by a preposition - and maybe I'm just speaking for myself here - but after 3 weeks I just don't think a class the vocabulary to follow it (and by "a class" I mean "we", and by "it" I mean "her"). But it's all pretty much ok with me, because I'm able to muddle through it, and the instructor is not at all mean-spirited about it.

The text we use for this class, on the other hand, is really awful. I'll get back to that in a minute, but first some personal history for context.

You should know that I have always absolutely hated school. And that somehow I've so far spent 23 years of my life in school. It's like this exquisite torture I've somehow learned to endure. I guess you should also know that I never graduated from high school and that I also never got a G.E.D. How I got into college or law school without a high school education is one of life's little mysteries that will have to wait for another day. I will say, though, that I left high school early because I had not yet honed the just mentioned "enduring torture" skill. Not having honed the skill, it seemed as though everything I learned from the ninth to the eleventh grade was simply a review of things I had already learned, and there was this great big world out there just waiting to be explored.

Long story short, I quit high school in my junior year, spent a summer harvesting wheat and then enlisted in the Air Force. But not before they guaranteed me the job I wanted, of course. I am a smartie, after all. The conversation went something like this:

Recruiter: "We offer almost every job that you can find outside of the military services. Do you have a job in mind you would like to do in the Air Force?"

Me: "I would like to be an actor. Yes. Something having to do with the theater part of the Air Force."

Recruiter: "Excellent. Sign here. And here. Add take these home for your parents to sign."

Yep. A smartie. I was on my way.

So I enlisted, made my way to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas (and by the way, who would name a place Lackland?) and went through basic training. That lasted about six weeks, during which I learned how to properly fold my underwear, wake up before daylight and march while wearing boots - all the while firming my resolve to remain humble throughout my life as a famous actor.

Who could have guessed that was not going to happen? Unbelievable as it seems, as the end of my basic training neared I was told there had been a mistake. As it turned out, there was no theater department in the Air Force. Those who discovered the error were, of course, very sorry about the whole misunderstanding. However, since I had been pretty good at learning to wake up, march and fold my underwear properly, I was in luck! The Air Force was willing to allow me to stay; in fact, they had another job for me!

It turned out my scores in language ability were high, and the worst part of my military career - basic training - was over. It would be a shame, said they, to have gone through the worst part and them not come out with something I wanted, right? So they wanted to offer me another job having something to do with language. Would I, they asked, be interested in learning the language of my choice?

Well, although it wasn't my first choice, I thought that maybe it would be almost as good as acting. It might be nice to learn Aramaic - a dead language I had heard the Bible was written in. Either that or maybe French. Yes. One of those two.

Of course, they said. Just sign here.

So I did, thrilled that soon I would be learning a language that would surely hold the key to all of the questions I had about life. Well, either that or French. And as I signed, I thought to myself that this Air Force business wasn't that bad - you just had to be smart enough to make it work for you.

Finally, several weeks later, I got my orders to depart for the DLIFLC : Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey to learn North Vietnamese.

North Vietnamese? Now . . . what? - wait - what?

I reread my contract with my commanding officer and, can you imagine? Nothing in it about the theater or Aramaic or French. And no escape clause this time, either.

So I went. To Monterey, California. And there I discovered two things. 1. Monterey was beautiful (I started a love affair with the Pennisula that has continued throughout my life. More about that later, maybe.), and 2. The Defense Language Institute knew how to teach a language.

There was lots of class time, lots of drills with tapes and lots of conversation in Vietnamese. Comprehension was a huge deal. And ok, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to say that it hasn't much stuck with me - but that's mostly because I never spoke it after I left Monterey. I could probably count to ten, and I still remember how to say "Khong ban toi, toi biet zo" (Don't shoot me, I know secrets), but other than that it's lost to me. The point remains valid, though, that it was a good system for learning a language.

Then later, when I was in college, I relearned French. And there, they utilized basically the same system used by DLI. Again, heavy on tapes, conversation, drills and comprehension. And again, it worked.

So now to the caboose of this train of thought: I'm not an expert, but I know a little something about how to learn languages. And it is my strong belief that although I like my instructor, the book we use for the Dutch course, "HELP!: een cursus Nederlands voor anderstaligen", sucks. There is a "hulpboek" (help book) that goes with the main text, but it is all but impossible to use it in combination with the main book. Chapter 1 in the text has nothing to do with chapter 1 in the hulpboek. And the dictionary? Well, don't get me started... But trust me on this, both books were written by a Dutch person for people who already have a good grasp of Dutch vocabulary. And hard as it may be to believe, most of us in this class don't.

Still, for me it's ok. I knew this was a fast class and it would take 3-5 hours outside time studying for each class. Others in the class didn't know this - mainly because the adverts for the class were all in Dutch. What I didn't know until today was that this class is an experiment! It hasn't been offered before. They want to see if it can be done. What we were told today was that the fun was over and now the classes were going to speed up.

Well, I'm of course still going to Berlin this weekend, and I'm going to have fun. And I'll study on the train on the way there and the way back, then study some more once I get home next week. But I'm worried that some of my classmates don't have the free time I do and will have to drop out. And I don't want that to happen. I don't know any of them very well, but I've come to think of them as my colleagues, and I don't want for any of them to leave yet.

If you're interested, I'll let you know what happens.