2011-09-23

Learning unspoken languages

Having started to relearn Russian recently, I feel so strongly that learning languages is my academic "anchor" that I have decided to start learning one unspoken language I have always wanted to learn but have failed in a number of trials. It is Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, the language of the Gemara part of the Babylonian Talmud, which has shaped the traditional Jewish way of thinking more than any other Jewish classical source. I have already made the necessary arrangement to learn it in a formal setting, i.e., to take a course in it at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, my alma mater.

The main reason why I have failed a number of times in learning this important language is that it is unspoken. I seem to have a serious problem in learning unspoken languages as I have to hear the sounds of a language I am learning. For this (and, of course, other) reasons I could not learn Classical Greek and Latin.

In terms of the accessibility of their sounds, unspoken, i.e., "dead", languages can be classified into those with reading traditions and those without. Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, like Biblical Hebrew, belongs to the former group. But the reading traditions of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, especially Traditional Ashkenazic and Modern Israeli traditions, which are the two most widespread ones in the Jewish world today, are not so well documented as those of Biblical Hebrew. Nor can one reconstruct the phonology of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic so well as that of Biblical Hebrew.

So I had been in limbo, until it suddenly came to me recently to take a course in this language taught by one of its most important researchers in the world. I can rely on his pronunciation. So I hope that lack of certainty about its phonology would not be an issue that have prevented me from continuing to learn the language. I am already quite convinced that this will be a totally different learning experience from learning living languages like Russian.

2011-09-16

Individual multilingualism - a blessing or a curse?

I used to think that individual multilingualism was a blessing, at least for me, until I started recently to work on my Russian. Now I feel that it is a double-edged sword and can also be a curse. My original intention of renewing my intensive study of Russian almost after 20 years was to raise the level of my proficiency in this language to the level of proficiency I have in Yiddish and Esperanto, as I have enough occasions to use it here in Israel. But Russian is so difficult that I have already become rather pessimistic about this possibility. Hebrew, English and Japanese are the three languages I have been using longer and more actively than any other language, so I will not forget them, even if I should not use them for a long time. I have been using Yiddish and Esperanto less long and less actively, so I have some lexical lacunae in my knowledge of these languages, but I will not forget them, either.

Keeping five active languages is not so simple, especially if most of them were acquired in a formal setting and not naturally from childhood in the situation of societal multilingualism. And adding another one to this list becomes more difficult, even exponentially. I feel that I have imposed upon myself the "yoke" of remaining enslaved to languages. Keeping in active memory the same terms of daily and academic life in six languages is a huge waste of what few intellectual resources I have. If I could manage to cover all my daily and academic needs in one or even two languages, as certain people in certain countries do, I could make a better use of the time and energy for more productive intellectual activities instead of constantly "ventilating" these six languages so as not to forget them.

Strangely, I find it easier to memorize abstract difficult words than simple terms for daily life and the physical world, including names of animals and plants. And my memory is still in great confusion about equivalents for the same physical objects in these six languages. I am planning to start compiling an online hexalingual thesaurus for myself in the near future so that my self-imposed enslavement to languages will be more of a blessing than a curse.

2011-09-09

Communication with a limited knowledge of a foreign language

I do not like to be spoken to by strangers in their bad Japanese or English. When I encounter these non-native speakers, I cannot help becoming suspicious of them and their intentions. I am ready to speak in one of these languages only with those who know them well enough (I have more tolerance to broken Hebrew, Yiddish and Esperanto). I may belong to a minority in this respect. Many other people seem to like to be spoken to in their respective native language even by non-native speakers who have only a smattering knowledge of it.

I have experienced this with a number of Russian speakers here, especially if they do not know enough Hebrew and English. The moment they find that I understand and speak some Russian, their face starts to shine and they become friendly. When I experienced this again this week, I have also realized that the fact that some non-native speaker has even a limited knowledge of some foreign language signals to its native speakers tacitly that he or she has some interest in their native language and culture and even likes them. This must be the case even with Esperanto, whose speakers have no culture in common except for the fact that they consider this language as a better solution to the problem of international communication than English. On the other hand, broken English as spoken to strangers in those social contexts that require no intelligence does not signal any common culture.

I have studied all the languages I have studied, including German, French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Polish, etc. but excluding Japanese, English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Esperanto, mainly for academic purposes, that is, as tools for reading research materials and/or primary sources. I feel neither need nor desire to invest a lot of time and energy to improve my knowledge of, let's say, German or French, to a level at which I can make intellectual conversations in it.

Russian is different from all the other languages I have studied for academic purposes. Having been living in Israel, which is one of the largest enclaves of Russian speakers outside Russia, I have had enough occasions to use my Russian, which has not made much progress since I learded it years ago. But after I saw again this week that even my limited knowledge of Russian could open the heart of some of its native speakers, whose culture I like very much and with whom I feel very comfortable, I have decided that I have to brush up my Russian so that it may reach at least the level of my Yiddish and Esperanto.

2011-09-02

Not all cultures in the world are equal

Since I came back to Israel from abroad about a month ago, I cannot stop comparing those cultures of the world I know (more or less) firsthand. By "cultures" I mean here mainly national characters. I know that this is not politically correct, but I have come to a firm conclusion that beyond the level of subjective tastes, not all cultures in the world are equal, and at least in certain specific areas some cultures are objectively superior to others. In this respect I oppose the so-called cultural relativism, especially as is often expointed as a convenient excuse to justify certain actions some cultures take but many others consider primitive.

Naturally, these judgments of ours are not free from the influences of the cultures in which we were born and brought up. But nevertheless, there must be more or less objective criteria to compare typical cultural traits of various nations in specific social contexts, though there are always a minority of exceptional members who do not match these generalizations. We may probably use as one of these criteria the kind of results brought about by a typical trait in a certain context that is attached a high value in a given culture.

Let us take learning as an example. Not all cultures in the world attach the same value to it, nor do they produce the equal number of researchers who contribute to the advancement of the humankind. Because of the different values attached to learning some nations who have less people may produce more scientists than others with more people not only in relative terms but even in absolute terms.

As far as I am concerned, the surest sign of the cultural backwardness of a nation is that they have no culture of self-criticism, nor can they find any other way to react to criticisms against certain aspects of their culture by others except by threatening them with physical intimidation.

Of course, there is no single culture that excels in every aspect. I for one have been influenced more by Japanese, Israeli and Ashkenazi cultures than any other. I take from these cultures (as well as perhaps from (Jewish) American and Russian cultures) only those traits that I consider positive selectively and try to compose my own custom-made culture. For example, I have adopted order, precision, diligence and honesty from Japanese culture, informality, spontaneity, flexibility and free exchance of opinions regardless of age, sex and social status from Israeli culture, and hospitality, humor, optimism and love of learning from Ashkenazi culture. After all, I am quite proud that it is they, and not some primitive cultures in which I find few or even no positive traits, that are the three main ingredients of my custom-made culture, though I do kvetch about these three cultures from time to time, and they also have enough primitive people.