by George Jochnowitz
I have always loved languages. I want to speak them and to know how they work. That is why I studied linguistics.
My mother told me that I was bilingual in Yiddish and English until I started kindergarten at the age of five. I don’t think I could have been. My maternal grandparents, who lived about a 15-minute walk from our apartment in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, had come to America when they were middle-aged. They spoke Yiddish to me; my parents spoke Yiddish to them even though they used only English at home. All the same, as far back as I can remember—I know that the memories of being a three- or four- or five-year-old child are few and far between—I always thought in English. When I spoke Yiddish, I was conscious of trying to find the right words. It was an effort, even though my pronunciation was perfect. The same is true today.
My pronunciation has often misled people. I speak Chinese badly and Polish almost not at all. Yet when I say a few words, I pronounce them well. Listeners think I can really communicate in Polish or Chinese and are mystified when I don't understand what they are saying. I suspect that even my own mother did not realize how inadequate my childhood command of Yiddish was.
Hebrew was the first foreign language I studied formally, starting at age 7. A friend of my grandfather's came to the house every Wednesday, and I took lessons in saying the prayers and reading the Bible. We never quite made it through Genesis. There was a missing element in my instruction: conversation. Learning vocabulary and grammar is both pleasurable and useful, but practice in the spoken language is needed as well. Although Biblical Hebrew is closer to the spoken language of Israel than Chaucer’s language (and maybe even Shakespeare’s) is to ours, no one quite speaks the ancient language. Theory and practice are both essential to language learning, except for a child, who can pick up languages through mere exposure.
My study of Hebrew led to an unexpected fringe benefit: I learned to read Yiddish. If you can read one language and speak another, you can learn to read the second without much effort. If a new alphabet is involved, learning it is a minor problem. Having been taught Hebrew letters, I could read Yiddish as soon as the rules relating the writing system to the sound system were explained to me. I suspect that a great many Yiddish speakers were never taught to read Yiddish but simply figured it out after they took a few Hebrew lessons.
Alphabets are very easy and logical. English spelling is somewhat unpredictable in terms of sounds. When I was about seven years old, I decided to remedy this flaw, by devising a new way to write English based entirely on pronunciation. I abandoned my project after a while when I saw that nobody wanted it. But when I reached the age of 13, I found something in my junior high school textbook that renewed my confidence in the value of what had been my fantasy as a seven-year-old.
The textbook in question was called Parlez-vous français? lt used strange characters within brackets to indicate the pronunciation of each word. My teachers ignored them. These funny symbols were the International Phonetic Alphabet (lPA), and they were explained in the appendix at the end of the book. Reading the appendix showed me that I was not the first person to invent a phonetic alphabet. My idle thoughts about sounds had not been so idle after all. I read about “high front rounded vowels” and learned how to pronounce the French u. My French teacher was dazzled. Years later, when I reached graduate school and studied phonetics, I rediscovered IPA, an old friend.
In high school, my friend Jimmy Brown and I learned to love opera. When we were 15, we went to a performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Amato Opera Theater, which used to be located on Bleecker Street. The performance was in English, and neither of us knew the story. All the surprises worked for us; we saw the opera as it was meant to be seen.
I bought a recording of the opera, in Italian, of course. I listened to it every day for a year. The following year, my daily listening was Cavalleria Rusticana. I followed the libretto enclosed in the album: Italian on one side, English on the other. Italian is extremely similar to French. In college, I went to the head of the Italian Department and told him that I had never studied Italian, but that I probably could enter the second-semester course. He gave me a grammar book and told me to come back in two weeks. We spoke in Italian for a few minutes before he placed me in a second-year class.
Let me skip over some 20-odd years. I was 46, and I had been invited to teach at Hebei University in Baoding, China. I took a six-week intensive summer course in Mandarin Chinese before I left New York. I wondered whether I would be able to learn the difference between ma on a high tone, meaning “Mommy,” and maon, a low, falling-rising tone, meaning “horse.” I found that I could learn to say the tones easily, but I had to be told which tone I was hearing, at least for a while. The tones turned out to be a minor problem. The fact that relative clauses precede the nouns they modify was a slightly bigger problem; by the time I realized that there was a relative clause in the sentence, the speaker had gone on and I was lost.
Living in China should have made it easy for me to pick up new vocabulary, but it was harder than I had ever expected. The problem was that I could never really learn to read. There are just too many Chinese characters, and I was just too hooked on alphabets. If you can read, you see a new word one day and hear it the next. Reading and speaking always reinforce each other. Reading Chinese is just plain hard. It’s even hard for Chinese children, who don’t learn to read as quickly as children whose language is written in an alphabet. Besides, I was in my forties. Although I could learn grammar and pronunciation as quickly as ever, I had no experience in learning to read ideograms. As you get older, the things you have learned how to learn can be acquired with greater and greater ease. The things you haven’t learned how to learn, on the other hand, are quite hard to crack.
Grammars don't frighten me. When I took Chinese in class, I learned as well as when I had started French at the age of 12, if not better. When I lived in China, however, I came across grammatical constructions I couldn’t figure out. There was a past tense formed by adding le and another formed by adding de. Whenever someone corrected me, I asked why. “It doesn't sound good,” I was told. They both sounded equally good and equally Chinese to me. What I needed was someone who could express the rules verbally in addition to knowing them instinctively. I couldn’t get an answer until I got back to the United States, where I was able to find a teacher who was experienced in teaching Chinese to Americans. She was able to tell me that le was used to establish past time, after which de was used to discuss time or place in the past. I couldn’t figure it out for myself because it hadn’t occurred to me that a language needed to make a distinction of this sort between two different past tenses.
Adults have to be taught grammar. You can guess the rule if you are acquiring a closely related language, as I could when I learned Italian. It is much more difficult, however, to generalize about grammatical categories that don’t exist in your own language. We adults are already in the habit of thinking in our own languages. Explaining a rule is simple and comprehensible; figuring it out is impossible, unless you have been presented with contrasting sets of sentences. In that case, of course, the selection of examples is in itself an explanation.
Distinctions must be pointed out to those learning a new language. This is true for both grammar and sounds. Just as I didn’t know to expect an extra Chinese past tense, Spanish students and Chinese students don’t know that they should listen for the difference in the vowels of fit and feet. Their ears are just as good as those of English speakers, but they have not learned to pay attention to this difference. Similarly, English speakers do not expect a change in the pitch of a syllable to mean that an entirely different word has been said. To cite my previous example, when you say ma on a high tone it means “mommy”; on a low falling-rising tone it means “horse.”
Hearing and using a language are essential. So is theoretical knowledge. Using a single approach is not enough when dealing with a structure as immense and as complicated as a language.
Explaining a rule is very simple if you have learned just what the rule is. Discovering a rule, even if it is a rule you use every day, is much more difficult. Discovering a rule in a language you hardly know is next to impossible, especially if the rule refers to a distinction you had never imagined. How many English speakers can explain what is wrong with “l have eaten breakfast at 7:15 this morning,” or why you can't say “The truck delivered 14 furnitures”? (The answers are that a present perfect tense like “have eaten”can never be used with an expression of definite time, and that “furniture” is not a member of the class of countable nouns in English.) Children can make these generalizations; adults can’t. Practice doesn't help if you practice mistakes.
Chinese was not the last language I studied. I went to visit Poland in 1990 and took six Polish lessons before my trip. They turned out to be surprisingly useful, not only in Poland but in New York. I would like to end this memoir with an account of a taxi ride:
I got into the cab and said “First Avenue and 62nd Street.”
The driver, Wlodzimierz, turned to me saying, “No speak.”
We were heading east, and he drove straight ahead, showing no sign of turning left at First Avenue.
“W lewo” (to the left), I said.
He turned left and proceeded up First Avenue.
“You Jew?” he inquired politely.
I said, “Yes.”
After arriving at my destination and paying him, I said, “Do widzenia” (goodbye).
“Shalom,” he answered.
George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article was originally published in the book, Language Crossings: Negotiating the Self in a Multicultural World, edited by Karen L. Ogulnick. Teachers College Press, 2000. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.