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The lute lies rusted in its green case odor of pines is synthetic; sweeteners artificial; even salt!  our tongues crave something dif...

Sunday, February 19, 2017

More Language Learning Tips

Why do you want to learn a language?

Travel.  Well, you can get by with very little foreign language to travel, since people in hospitality industry are most likely to speak English.  Travel is great, but I've known a guy who is a great traveler to Cuba, knows the country well with many Cuban friends, whose Spanish is almost non-existent.

Reading. If you want to read, then you can read. You can read very well and not have a basic traveler's knowledge.  That's fine too.

Teaching.  If you want to teach, you have to be a step ahead of where your students are.  You also want to be good role model.

Pronunciation.  You might always speak the language with your own accent.  If I heard a tape of myself speaking Spanish I could have a hundred quibbles. That is the gold standard, in the sense that someone native will always sound native, and you and I might never. But think that Joseph Conrad might never had passed for a native speaker of English...

Friday, February 17, 2017

How to Learn a Language

How do you learn a language?  I will tell the first thing I did was to learn the pronunciation rules in Spanish. You know how to pronounce a word simply by seeing it written, once you know those rules.  It is a good idea to read aloud from texts for hours at a time in order to practice. I may not have always had a perfect accent, but I never said hambre for hombre, because I knew that the o never has the sound of ah.... You should at least pronounce the phonemes correctly that you have in your own damn language, right?

My students even at the senior level still say dificil instead of difícil.

You need to listen to the language a lot.  Fortunately there is the Youtube.  There are free lectures in Spanish at the Fundación Juan March, that you can download, many of them an hour long or longer.  As with reading, you need to just listen and not worry if you understand.  Eventually, you will start understanding more and more, and you will also get the intonation in your head.

You need to exaggerate the intonation, which is usually ignored in teaching. Pretend you are mocking the speaker of the language by using the exact pitch pattern she uses.   If you cannot hear it then try to sing or chant it. Speak English with a cartoon-French accent.  That is actually what you want to get... in French.

Learn the grammar thoroughly. Just learn it so it has virtually no mistakes in it when you write it. You can communicate fine in bad grammar (sometimes!), but if you just communicate and never learn the grammar, you will be creating an artificial limit for yourself on how well you know the language after your fluency increases.  Grammar will not make you fluent, but you should enjoy it for its own sake, for its ability to express nuance. Learning grammar is not the same as acquiring it.  You can learn it and still flub up when you try to speak, because humans make mistakes when learning new skills.

Another thing is reading. Reading alone will never teach you to speak the language, but it enlarges the vocabulary immensely, and it is the only way to do this rapidly.  I recommend not looking up words in the dictionary, because that will slow you down.  Only if you keep seeing a word and have a burning curiosity about it.  You might look up words and then still not remember them. That is because you need repetition for memory, not a one-off look up of a wordl  Without extensive reading, your vocabulary will always be artificially limited, because the vocabulary in most everyday interactions you have a traveler will never match the actual vocabulary as a literate speaker of the language. Once again, you can be ok and get by as a traveler without having ever read a book in the language, but you are missing out on a lot.

Also, it might seem obvious, but reading reinforces what you already know as well.  You will be pounding in, constantly, the most common words of the language, because they will be present on every page. Also, the most frequent combinations of words, a sense of what is idiomatic in a language.

What to read?  Novels.  You can follow the plot without understanding every word.  You can just fill in the blanks with your own imagination. Novels have more and different kinds of words than academic articles about literature.

Pronunciation, listeninggrammar, reading for a bigger lexicon.  Those are parts of the language base.  To actually speak it, you must use it in real life, non-classroom settings. The classroom is part of the base, but is not sufficient.

One thing I find myself doing is to prepare for situations in advance.  So if I am going to the cell phone store in France, I am going to think of what I'm going to say before. When I'm constantly doing that, then I'm generating sentences in my head all the time, not merely when I'm actually in a conversational situation. Then you will be thinking in the language. Even after reading Italian for an hour I find myself thinking in my miserable Italian.

If you are at a college (or wherever) you need to find speakers of the language and befriend them, always speaking to them.  If you are in the country whose language you want to learn, you are going to want to avoid speakers of your own language.  The reason is that a conversation will often default to the easier language, which will be the language you already know.  

Apps like duolingua are fine.  They won't give you everything, but you can learn vocabulary and some grammar and pronunciation. Don't pay for expensive language-learning programs like Rosetta stone.

Don't expect someone to teach you a language: you have to take ownership and learn it. A good teacher is wonderful, but a highly motivated student is even better than wonderful.


In / Out

If you study poetry in the academy, you always yearn for a "non-academic" approach. I suppose a sociologist never feels this? That there is a real sociology taking place that might be better than sociology as an academic dictionary? No, because sociology was born and will die as an academic discipline. That's what it is, for better or worse.  

Conversely, from outside the academy, you might crave the knowledge that you think professors have about poetry.  I always thought that I could be a professor and come up with the real knowledge, but also using my actual poetic knowledge to that end. When I say that I knew things about poetry at age 14 that many professors do not know, I am not at all exaggerating.

The accoutrements of scholarship, the formats and conventions, are external to the object of study. But then they get confused with the real thing. I know a poet who wants to justify everything he does in academic, theoretical ways, as though writing poems like Keats did were not sufficient.

What if you had Mozart in your music department.  Oh, professor Mozart, he doesn't have a PhD!  He just writes the stuff; he's not a scholar. Yet if a poet in an English department happens to be a mediocrity, then we won't think in that way. Or if a Spaniard in your department writes a mediocre (actually maybe a bad) novel and gets it published through connections, as has happened, not in my department but in other cases I know. You wouldn't call him Professor Lorca.

So you'd like to have an approach to poetry that takes it seriously, but part of that would be making those value judgments that the academy has a hard time with.  We legitimate our work through peer review, but there is not a consensus about what a good poem might be. So we have this whole category of work that is not taken seriously (translation too)...  but to take it seriously would also mean that it wouldn't count at all if it were self-indulgently shitty.


Being smart about poetry is even more rare than being a poet.  As Pope said about "Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss" or something like that. All this scholarship that just goes through the motions is profoundly depressing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


It was your hatred for February that first endeared you to me, old friend

What you called its impertinent brevity, its indecisiveness and squalor

Though the heart of winter, it lacked all conviction

Now it is February again and I wonder if you were speaking in earnest

Perhaps there was something else under your skin that you couldn't openly confess

Something colder even than the biting wind of that month you despised


There's a way that Oscar Peterson phrases the beginning of the melody of the tune "Easy Does It" with such utter conviction. It is done with the right hand and is not a complex melody at all--very repetitive. If I could just do that a little bit in some context, in whatever art form I am working in.

I used to not even like OP very much. All those glissandos.  But whatever his excesses of bad taste when he was tasty he was very good.

Bad habits

Bad habits are the result of mistaken beliefs, and also contribute to them.  For example, I felt I needed to check my email constantly, or leave it on in the background while I am working on my computer.

The mistaken belief in this case was that I needed to respond immediately to whatever I was asked, and that some great opportunity was going to come my way by way email at any moment. In truth, I do get such opportunities, but they do not require immediate action on my part.  I could read email twice a day and do just fine.

The habit is self-reinforcing, in that I get anxious when I don't check. So I get to soothe my anxiety by checking, but actually it would be more soothing rarely to check at all during the course of a day.

Taking the bus rather than walking 10 minutes is also a bad habit. It seems to save time, but I have to be out at least three minutes (for fear of missing it) and then ride it for four minutes, so I am really saving only three minutes, and missing a chance to walk and think more. I have waited for the bus for as long as 8 minutes (if I am early and it is late). If it is very cold I could take the bus, though often times it is a pleasant temperature any way.

Checking stats on my blog is a bad habit. I like the fact that they are rising, so that I can get 10,000 hits a month, so there is a little ego boost that comes with that.  I don't see why I need to do that every day, though.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


And what of lovers?

They are easier to find than enemies.

Not people to got to bed with

(Though there's that too!)

Or set up domestic arrangements

But anyone who will love you for a moment or two

Or deeply and long