Mary Douglas, anthropologist, opens her essay “Why I Have to Learn Hebrew: The Doctrine of Sanctification” with the question “Why?” (HT John Hobbins). Hers is an excellent question, but I also want us to come around to another: “How?”
First, let’s talk about her “Why?” question. We’ll use some technical anthropological and linguistic jargon. And I do apologize for that to readers who are on the outside of this kind of “academic” culture, and even the subcultures of anthropological linguistics and second language learning and acquisition.
Second, let’s talk about “How?” How can she learn Hebrew?
I may just mention how we work with adults learning English here at
First, here’s how
In her old age, my grandmother started to learn Spanish because she wanted to be able to read Don Qixote in the original. My father was derisive: She was giving herself airs, it was absurdly ambitious, she was too old to learn a new language, and so on. Now, here am I, at an even more advanced age than she was then, preparing to learn Hebrew. It is crazy; at least my grandmother had a good basis of Latin and French, but my linguistic qualifications are weaker. It will be painful and a failure; why do I want to try?
Now, before we get to the simpler question of “How Douglas can learn Hebrew,” let’s continue with more anthropological and linguistic and academic questions. Here’s one:
Academic culture does not smile on subjective feminists or their complaints. But
We should wrap this up (this jargon laden discussion I mean), and get on with talking about “How Douglas has to learn Hebrew.” But let me interject a couple more things. First, the “emic” and “etic” terms are coinages of linguist and anthropologist Kenneth L. Pike, who used the former term (emic) for the subjective and insider perspectives, and the latter term (etic) for more objective and outsider perspectives. Remember,
(Pike, I have said elsewhere, uses a “How” that is similar to the afrafeminist methodologies of Jacqueline Jones Royster; click here to enter another jargon laden subculture).
Second, then, let’s talk about “How?” How can
This is quite an astonishing self-assessment and prediction, if it’s not hyperbole. But I think
There’s no law that tells her What she must learn to “learn” Hebrew.
There’s no enforcement officer forcing her to Do certain drills or exercises a certain way.
There’s not even a living speaker of ancient Hebrew to negotiate with her various meanings.
Rather, there is a good bit of listening, hypothesizing, observing, reading, did I say guessing, failing, and hurting she must do. She may listen to texts and she may read living and dead experts. But she cannot stay the same person and still learn Hebrew. The how requires adult human conversion to one profound degree or another.
Now this is completely different from how Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen conceive of language acquisition. (Should we throw Plato and Aristotle in with these guys?) Those men aren’t really after change in the learner so much. No, in fact, they tend to say things like “competence” in “language” is innate. It’s so “natural” that the “natural approach” to “acquisition” really doesn’t require a “teacher.” The deep structure of “language” can be abstracted out and then reapplied to any situation in “performance.” I could go on, but we are doing the academic speak again, and Robert de Beaugrande has this wonderful published article in which he does that so much better. (The article talks a little bit too about how “emics” and “etics” and other things Pike talked about really do help you learn language faster and better. You have to be willing to go places, and talk to people or listen actively, and to get your hands dirty, and to fail, and to change yourself from your own subjective position.)
So I’m going to be a little clever here to get us to imagine better language learning. I’m going to stop for now by quoting Pike. (But do you see what you are doing? You are looking at little bits of alphabetic English on a computer screen or printed page. Really, do you see what you are doing by “reading” so subjectively, so amazing.) This is Pike’s kind of language learning, and it’s the “How” that I’ve learned by and that learners here at TCU best learn by. It is the kind of learning, subjective life changing observing, that Monty Roberts used to learn the language of horses. It’s how Mary Douglas learned cultures, and even the Hebrew language. It is ambigous and humble.
Pike says this (and pardon the academic speak—it is you reading after all):
“In a shared physical-social environment, a person can learn to speak a language without an interpreter. This implies the presence of a shared capacity to learn cross-culturally and to transmit names, social structure, and worldview.”
He is not saying that there is no teacher needed in acquistion that is natural. No, he admits to the pain and the possible failure in such learning. He is saying that the learner is the teacher in the “shared physical-social environment.” Pike is saying that such learning . . .
begins with intersubjectivity, with people working together; but in addition it ties people and things into a package as a starting point. It thus rejects the possibility of starting with abstract minds without reference to the physical world. And, similarly, it rejects the possibility of beginning philosophically with the minimum units of the physical world which may be inaccessible to us in terms of common sense experience. So our [learning] experience is important as being possible—and it delays the necessity for the discussion of ultimate starting points if they are to be stated in terms of presuppositions from mechanism, theism, pantheism, animism, or other postulated sources. It begins with the possibility and relevance of human behavior in physical context. (He elaborates more here in Conviction 1.2.)