Idea : Foreign Languages for Literature Geeks

So the whole idea for “What country loves Shakespeare most” came to me, as I mentioned in the comments, when pondering what foreign language I should attempt to learn. German clearly wins the Shakespeare question, so I happily go off and pull down some learn-German podcasts.

Know what it takes me all of 10 minutes to learn? These suck.  Why does every language lesson start you out on Hello, GoodBye, Yes, No, and then “I speak German. Do you speak German?” No I don’t speak German, I know how to say Hello and Goodbye.  How about some actual vocabulary or grammar? I don’t want to learn this language to have a polite but shallow conversation about the weather, I want to learn the language to actually learn the language. I would rather speak like Tarzan and be able to get my point across than to be limited to polite shrugs and repeatedly saying “I didn’t understand you.”  They say that it’s easier for children to learn a foreign language, and I think I know why. It has nothing to do with our brains, it’s because children don’t know what they don’t know, and they have no fear of sounding foolish because to them it’s the only way to communicate. We as adults are so worried about speaking properly right away that it takes us way too long to get any sort of foundation in what we’re saying.

So, here’s my idea. I don’t have the skills to run with this, but maybe somebody out there does. I think it could be a winner. I know I’d jump all over it:

Take a completely different approach. Start with a classic work of literature (I’d say “…for Shakespeare Geeks”, but why limit it?)  For each lesson take a snippet of some piece of literature that the English-speaking student is expected to have some familiarity with. Now, teach that snippet in a different language. Work through the translation. Explain word choice, grammar choice, and even cultural significance if it’s necessary. My German friends are quick to point out that the complete works have two entirely different translations. Perfect. I would like a lesson that compares them and explains to me, as an English speaker, how and more importantly why they differ.  You wouldn’t have to explain Shakespeare, though, and that’s the best part. We’ve already come into it knowing what the other person intended to say. It just so happens that he said it differently, and you’re explaining to us why he chose those words to express himself instead of the ones with which we are more familiar.

Bonus, since Shakespeare in particular is so well-suited to performance, this approach lends itself wonderfully to both written and spoken lessons. You could go either way. I can see text side-by-side on a page, or I can hear somebody recite “To be or not to be” in German. I’d expect that the best solution would be a combination of the two.

I’d be willing to bet that a student of this method would be able to read documents in their new language must faster.  Maybe they wouldn’t be able to hold much of a conversation, true. But people have different priorities. I don’t know anybody who speaks German, and even if I did chances are that they probably speak English as well.  But on the other hand there’s all sorts of literature written in German (including German web pages?) that I might want to read. Now what?

If a German-language speaker out there wants to give this a shot, I’ll volunteer as first student.

12 thoughts on “Idea : Foreign Languages for Literature Geeks

  1. Hi Duane,

    I am totally intrigued by your approach. I have doubts whether it works in terms of grammar, though. The German translations of Shakespeare, of course, do not really sound like our German today when it comes to grammar and sentence structure.

    And I am still not quite sure whether I understood everything correctly. You want a (Shakespearean) quote and the translation (or more of them) and some explanation, right?

  2. Ok, then let's just give it a try and start with the Germans' favourite, Hamlet.

    Unfortunately, however, there is only one translation of this famous line. I guess it was received so well and then became so famous that no translator ever changed it.

    The translation is:

    "Sein oder nicht sein. – Das ist hier die Frage"

    So, you see: We do have an infinitive. Only it doesn't work exactly as the English infinitive. We don't need a "to" to mark it but rather have a different infinitive for every word. This is probably the most problematic feature of the German language.

    An example: The English verb "to go" has the present forms : I go, you go, he/she/it goes (well, here you also change it), we go, you go, they go.
    In German it is: "gehen" and then we have to bend it to: Ich gehe, du gehst, er/sie/es geht, wir gehen, ihr geht, sie gehen.

    Ok, back to Hamlet! So we have the infinitive "sein" which is a literal translation of "to be". The first part of the quote actually is a very literal translation. "or" is "oder" and "not to be" is "nicht sein".

    Then comes the interesting part."that is the question" translates into "das ist die Frage". You might recognize that we have inserted a "hier", which means "here" or in this context rather "in this situation". I guess it was added in order to sound more rhythmic. But you also see that the syntax is actually similar in this case. subject – verb – object.

    Something else about the German language which is problematic for foreign learners is that we do write nouns in capitals. This is something that has to be remembered when writing.

    And another difficult feature is the article. I love the English language for the "the". No differences between masculine/feminine/neutral there. However, we have three kinds of definite articles: der/die/das (masculine/feminine/neutral). So, you can see that "Frage" ("question") is a feminine noun. Unfortunately, there are no indicators which tell you the right article. As foreign learner you just have to learn every noun with the article by heart in order to know which one to choose.

    The phrase "Das ist (hier) die Frage" can actually be used in modern-day German. It doesn't sound old-fashioned but can be used in everyday conversation (however, mainly without the "hier").

    Was that a good first lesson?

  3. I like the idea, but have to agree with Katja that Shakespeare might be a bad choice. I often use books I'm familiar with for self-study (usually Young Adult fiction or somewhat more sophisticated children's books, depending on my level of proficiency). Why Shakespeare and not newspaper articles or other more contemporary texts? In my experience an approach like this works, but a basic understanding of the language in question is necessary.
    I agree that podcasts are not the way to go when it comes to learning grammar, but what's wrong with the good old book/audio combination? Ideally one that comes with a separate grammar booklet or a good sized grammar section.

  4. Glad, you liked it, Duane. I don't have a blog but have been thinking about starting one for some time now… your comment has certainly encouraged this idea!

  5. Given that Shakespeare himself was not shy about bending the rules of grammar until they screamed, I can see your point. I think that many general principles could still be gathered, though, particularly with regard to vocabulary and syntax. For example, what form of each word is chosen and why? Are there special ways to tell which noun is associated with which adjective, regardless of where they are in the sentence? Those are the sort of important rules that I think are lost in traditional lessons where the speaker says only "Repeat after me" and doesn't explain why sometimes that word ends in -e and sometimes it ends in -en.

    While ideally this could be a very large set of lessons, a really basic one could start out with something liek "To be or not to be, that is the question." Take two German translations of that, and then explain the vocabulary that each uses, and the breakdown of the sentence. Does German have an "infinitive" form? Does the German end up expressed the same way, or does it come out as something more like "The question is whether to be or not to be."

    I think that the typical English speaker will have a tendency to think in terms of "subject verb object", and right off the bat Shakespeare breaks you of that habit. It's been suggested repeatedly that understanding Shakespeare's works actually makes you smarter, for that exact reason – your brain has to work a little harder. So I'm curious how that translates.

    I was listening to the Howard Stern radio show once, and he had just picked up some Japanese station or something. So he had a translator sitting with him. "I, singlehandedly," he began.

    The translator said nothing. "I, singlehandedly," he repeated more slowly, and waited. Still she said nothing.

    "I singlehandedly," he said again, "what's wrong with you?"

    "I need your verb," she said patiently, giving everybody an impromptu lesson in Japanese grammar.

    "Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth." – Mark Twain, legendary Shakespeare denier

  6. Katja – Love it! Although I don't think that blog comments will made a good forum for lengthier lessons :). If you've got a blog of your own let us know, I'm sure some of us will head over and become followers if you want to keep this going.

    Annekh – The whole idea wasn't so much to keep the Shakespeare, but rather "rather than decoding a string of words to figure out what they say, why not start where you know what they're supposed mean, and figure out how?" A newspaper is good for modern practice, to be sure, but I couldn't learn on my own from it because I would have no context, it could be an article about the price of potatoes going up or about the BP oil spill.

    "to be or not to be" ends up as a nice example, even in German, because a speaker with no clue could potentially see the repeated pattern "Sein oder nicht sein". It's not a hard leap to see "nicht" as "not", and maybe "oder" as "or", leaving "sein" as "to be". which turns out to be exactly right. Only here, Katja can provide us more explanation about why that is.

    I don't really know if this approach would work on a large scale or not, it's something I quite literally thought of on the walk across the parking lot to work this morning. We can evolve it. Perhaps a combination of factors – studying old text translations, coupled with application in modern usage? Again Katja nails it, explaining the extra "hier" and how you might say the same thing in modern German.

  7. Katja, Just curious.
    Are you speaking of the Schlegel translations when you say there is only one? There should be some by Richard Flatter, who disagrees with much of what Schlegel did to alter the versification, many times unnecessarily in Flatter's view. Flatter had translated 18 of the plays by the late 1940s, with the view that alterations in translating should not, if it can be avoided, also alter or "correct" the format of the verse structure found in the quartos and First Folio (a thing easily done in German). I'm not sure of which plays he completed.

    I love it that nouns are capitalized in German. It's what Shakespeare did with many of them. The line in the Folio reads:
    "To be, or not to be, that is the Question:"
    Nouns could be as or more important to Shakespeare in the voicing and verse rhythms.
    Interesting–but likely pure coincidence– the noun "Frage" is feminine and the line ends with a 'feminine" ending-or has 11 beats, not ten, and the noun is capitalized, exactly as in the Folio. Of course, the stresses will often fall in different places otherwise.

  8. Thank you for the additional information, JM.

    I actually thought, there was only one translation of this line. This is probably because it is so famous and everytime it is quoted in books or on TV, they use the additional "hier". This is also something which kind of gives me some trouble when I think about the English Hamlet. (Up to now) when thinking about it, I was never quite sure, whether Shakespeare also has a "here" in the line. I simply got confused and had to look it up… But I guess, after this discussion I won't forget that again! So, thanks!

  9. Just saw the link "so many resources" in the other thread for some of the German translations. It is Schlegel's translation. Flatter leaves out the "hier" but, curiously, adds an exclamation point. Totally uncharacteristic of him as he points up in his book the overuse of the little bugger by other editors. (unless it's "emendation" of his translation-not sure)

    PS Duane, Compared to our rigid definitions Shakespeare did bend the rules till they screamed. But in reality he didn't so much bend the rules of grammar as invent some. Back then there were very few "rules" as we know them. They came later. He was literally inventing usages of the language and the language itself was in a huge state of flux and inventive change. Syntax, spelling, etc. didn't matter much. You wrote it as you heard it or wanted to say it. Note his use of the functional shift in inventing new words (nouns become verbs, etc.)
    Where he really circumvented the rules was in his bending the iambic pentameter form to its breaking point while still using it as a guiding mechanism. –Another thing that makes German a particularly difficult language for translating him accurately.

  10. I read Le Petit Prince, en Français when I was in high school. It was definitely more helpful in helping me develop fluency. That's really the key. When we listen to young children read, they aren't fluent just yet. They're spending the majority of their energy on decoding each word one at a time rather than absorbing the connected meanings and grammatical relationships. Once a reader has a comfort level with basic vocabulary, then comprehension can occur. Most foreign language instruction emphasizes vocabulary over fluency because those basic units–the words–seem like a logical place to start tacking a new language. Fluency can't really enter into it until a reader or speaker can grasp which words are nouns and which are verbs. Still, hearing and speaking the language–no matter how imperfect we may be–is what leads to fluency! There are times my thoughts are in French rather than English-translated-to-French because those ideas are fluent in my brain.

    Bon chance! J'adorez votre idee.

  11. Duane, your idea is not a new one. Some language teachers proposed it
    many years ago. Prose, of course, would be much easier to use than
    verse. The most important idea that you have highlighted that differs
    from most modern language programs is to show the student the proper
    translation of a text, rather than teach him some basics and try to
    make him work out a translation on his own. (You see, Katja, English
    retains some difficulties with gender — we still must say he/him or she/her and it becomes difficult when we really mean either one,
    especially in these politically gender-sensitive days.) Unfortunately,the idea never seemed to catch on.

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