Thursday, May 29, 2008

How She Has to Learn Hebrew

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 Texas Christian University. I might as well say something about how I learned English, Ebonics, and Vietnamese as a child; and Indonesian, Japanese, Greek, Hebrew, and Cherokee as an adult. The most challenging language, by far, has been “academic English.” Let me speak some of that a bit now before getting to the fun “How.”

First, here’s how Douglas begins with why. She starts in with a personal non-academic voice to begin her academic essay:

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?

Douglas uses the essay, in part, to explain to other academics how she’s after the system of thought constructed in Hebrew by the Hebrews for the cultural notion, or doctrine, of what we technically call “sanctification” in English. She goes on: “If I knew Hebrew, I could read the whole of the Pentateuch to see if the words that have been rendered in English as . . .” and “I might find a gamut of different Hebrew terms that have been gathered together by being rendered in terms of . . . where a nuanced range of words distinguishing sacred from profane, hallowed from unhallowed, consecrated from secular, may be more accurate.” In summary, the “Why?” is to get at the accuracy of English renderings of Hebrew words which have been constructed in a system of Hebrew thought and culture. Douglas’s suspicion, her hypothesis from her position as a Hebrew language outsider, is that “sanctification” assumes the binary at least of “sacred from profane, hallowed from unhallowed, consecrated from secular.”

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:

How can Douglas test her hypothesis about the binary nature of a Hebrew notion from her own position of observing outsider?

Here’s how. Douglas has to work out her own binary splits imposed by academic culture. (I’m tempted to say something about Aristotle here but will hold off). First, there’s the non-academic / academic split. For example, Douglas has that non-academic voice in the first paragraph of her essay, which sets her up to talk in her academic voice for the rest of the essay. Second, there’s the objective / subjective split. In other words, as an academic at large, she has to hide in some places where she really stands as an academic—she has to pretend objectivity. For example, when writing of a particular English word to note that it “does not prejudice the interpretation” of the Hebrew words, Douglas adds: “Needless to say, this reading would make a lot of difference to feminist complaints against sexist prejudice in the Bible” (page 157). Do notice that Douglas feels no need to say, at this point, whether she is a feminist who has had a feminist complaint.

Academic culture does not smile on subjective feminists or their complaints. But Douglas does get to take her subjectivist position publicly in the Academy. Here’s how:

Douglas is a professional learner, an anthropologist who is a field worker, an ethnographer, an observer of human behaviors that include language as part and parcel of cultural systems. Nonethless, she does not have to be always an “objective” observer. In fact, it is widely acknowledged (and was even protested by anthropologist Marvin Harris) that she took an “emic” and not an “etic” approach to understanding others’ cultures and languages. She is a contructivist. She admires Nelson Goodman and writes an essay to include in a book she co-edits in order to honor Goodman. And in another book Implicit Meanings, she gives this definition that acknowledges that and some “How” language is learned: Language, for example, learned and spoken by individuals, is a social phenomenon produced by continuous interaction between individuals” (page 52).

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, Douglas used the subjective and insider perspectives in her field work. She and Pike both loved Nelson Goodman. Pike loved to paraphrase a statement from Goodman’s book, Ways of Worldmaking. It goes like this: “What we need in our learning and our knowing is ‘Radical relativism within rigid restraints.’” Now, I should add one more little technical thing. Pike strongly believed, and he wrote in Linguistic Concepts, that “One approach to studying language emphasizes that man [or woman] as a user of language affects the nature of the units of his [or her] language. His [or her] reactions to language become part of the data for the study of language, because described expectations of his [or her] reactions are part of the definitions of the structure of language.” I don’t know if Pike and Douglas ever met. But I think she would agree with him when he says, “the observer universally affects the data and becomes part of the data.”

(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 Douglas learn Hebrew?

Is how Douglas learns really as unfortunate as she predicts from the outset that it will be? Remember, she says: “my linguistic qualifications are weaker. It will be painful and a failure.”

This is quite an astonishing self-assessment and prediction, if it’s not hyperbole. But I think Douglas knows going in that “the observer universally affects the data and becomes part of the data.” In other words, she’s going to change Hebrew by learning it. Of course, she must change too.

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.)

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