The Frustration and Exhilaration of Learning a New Language

For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown . The other language is always there to support you, to save you. But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.

I started to give Jhumpa Lahiri's book, "In Other Words," the "Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet" treatment, but soon realized I would want to excerpt just about the whole book.  Lahiri's mother tongue is Bengali, but (like me) she spoke it only at home and learned English outside the home, and now in her adult life English is by far her base language (although her Bengali is far better than my extremely rusty Taiwanese).

She is a writer, and a skilled one at that, and life circumstance bring her to learn and then write in Italian.  She is now published in two languages, and this book is a beautifully written exploration of how she learns her new language and what it is like to write in that new language.  Again, I could excerpt the whole dang thing, it is that good; but let me just offer one more excerpt:

Should I dream of a day, in the future, when I’ll no longer need the dictionary, the notebook, the pen? A day when I can read in Italian without tools, the way I read in English? Shouldn’t that be the point of all this? 

I don’t think so. When I read in Italian, I’m a more active reader, more involved, even if less skilled. I like the effort. I prefer the limitations. I know that in some way my ignorance is useful to me. 

I realize that in spite of the limitations the horizon is boundless. Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility . I know that, since I’m an apprentice , my work will never end. 

When you’re in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar longing in me. I don’t want to die , because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity.

I'm not nearly as articulate as Lahiri, nor does my profession allow me to dive so deeply into language issues.  But as I muck through learning Mandarin, I find myself feeling similar frustrations and experiencing similar exhilarations.

Let me start by saying I am painfully bad at Chinese.  My audio lessons ask me to say something and then pause for me to say it, and I almost never know how to say it, and even if I do I can't do it in the time given.  Why?  Because I have to figure out what order the words go in (because Mandarin grammar is different from English), then I have to remember how to say each word, and if that wasn't bad enough Mandarin is tonal so I have to remember what inflection to give each word.  By the time my puny brain has processed all that, my audio lessons are already onto the next sentence.  Dur!

Having once spoken Taiwanese, and having taken a year of Mandarin in college, I have something to work from when it comes to decoding grammar.  And, I have a base of words that I no longer have to translate from English but I just "know" as being those things (recall my clunky example a while back about "cat").

But other words are brand new to me, and I have to figure out how to remember them, and I often do not.  If I had time I would enlist human help, because that feedback loop would be useful, but my Mandarin is so primitive and slow right now that even simple conversations would be arduous exercises.  I hope to get there in a few months.

So it's a lot of slogging and a lot of "I forget" and a lot of "I didn't say it right."  Which is a healthy thing for this Type A person to experience.  As are some small victories of recognition and good pronunciation.  Lahiri's relationship with Italian is beautiful, while mine with Mandarin is far patchier.  But it is a thing in my life, and it adds texture to my life, and for that I am grateful.  And one day I will be able to have a conversation with someone in a language besides English, and that will be really fun.


Recommended Reads, 26th in a Quarterly Series

Stuff I've read recently:

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (Bruni).  We’re not too far from this, so this is a helpful word.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Pollan).  Like he says: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  But from seven simple words are unpacked a whole way of thinking about eating.

African-American Poetry: An Anthology 1773-1927 (Sherman).  Didn’t like everything but some of the pieces were revelatory.  More, please.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Kristof).  Heart-wrenching stories about how we treat girls and women around the world.

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Grant). Gladwell-esque.  This taker loved the prod to become more of a giver, but an “otherish” one. 

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (Cuddy).  I actually hadn’t seen her TED talk but now I need to.  A really good antidote to that gnawing sense that you’re faking your way through life.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LXII

Here's an excerpt from a book I recently read, "The Hiding Place," by Corrie ten Boom:

It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” 

His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. 

I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give Your forgiveness. As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. 

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LXI

Here's an excerpt from a book I recently read, "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation," by Stephen Johnson:

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches that successfully fill in their blanks, may seem like an obvious truth, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas, keeping them from the kind of random, serendipitous connections that exist in dreams and in the organic compounds of life. Ironically, those walls have been erected with the explicit aim of encouraging innovation. They go by many names: patents, digital rights management, intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technology. But they share a founding assumption: that in the long run, innovation will increase if you put restrictions on the spread of new ideas, because those restrictions will allow the creators to collect large financial rewards from their inventions. And those rewards will then attract other innovators to follow in their path.

The problem with these closed environments is that they inhibit serendipity and reduce the overall network of minds that can potentially engage with a problem. This is why a growing number of large organizations—businesses, nonprofits, schools, government agencies—have begun experimenting with work environments that encourage the architecture of serendipity. Traditionally, organizations that have a strong demand for innovation have created a kind of closed playpen for hunches: the research-and-development lab. Ironically, R&D labs have historically functioned as a kind of idea lockbox; the hunches evolving in those labs tended to be the most heavily guarded secrets in the entire organization. Allowing these early product ideas to circulate more widely would allow rival firms to copy or exploit them. Some organizations—including Apple—have gone to great length to keep R&D experiments sequestered from other employees inside the organization. 

But that secrecy, as we have seen, comes with great cost. Protecting ideas from copycats and competitors also protects them from other ideas that might improve them, might transform them from hints and hunches to true innovations. And indeed there is a grow-ing movement in some forward-thinking companies to turn their R&D labs inside out and make them far more transparent than the traditional model. Organizations like IBM and Procter & Gamble, who have a long history of profiting from patented, closed-door innovations, have embraced open innovation platforms over the past decade, sharing their leading-edge research with universities, partners, suppliers, and customers. 

In early 2010, Nike announced a new Web-based marketplace it called the GreenXchange, where it publicly released more than 400 of its patents that involve environmentally friendly materials or technologies. The marketplace was a kind of hybrid of commercial self-interest and civic good. By making its good ideas public, Nike made it possible for outside firms to improve on those innovations, creating new value that Nike itself might ultimately be able to put to use in its own products. In a sense, Nike was widening the network of minds who were actively thinking about how to make its ideas more useful, without putting anyone else on its payroll. But Nike’s organizational values also include a commitment to environmental sustainability, and the company recognized that many of its eco-friendly patents might be useful in different contexts. Nike is a big corporation, with many products in many categories, but there are limits to its reach. Some of its innovations might well turn out to be advantageous to industries or markets where it has no competitive involvement whatsoever. By keeping its eco-friendly ideas behind a veil of secrecy, Nike was holding back—without any real commercial justification—ideas that might, in another context, contribute to a sustainable future. In collaboration with Creative Commons, Nike released its patents under a modified license permitting use in “non-competitive” fields. (They also created a standardized, pre-negotiated contract for the patents, thereby reducing the transaction costs of haggling over each patent license individually.)

The example scenario they invoked at the launch of GreenXchange would have warmed the heart of Stephen Jay Gould: an environmentally sound rubber originally invented for use in running shoes that could be adapted by a mountain bike company to create more sustainable tires. Apparently, Gould’s tires-to-sandals principle works both ways. Sometimes you make footwear by putting tires to new use, sometimes you make tires by putting footwear to new use. Green Xchange is trying to give multinational corporations some of the same freedom to reinvent and recycle that Gould’s sandal-makers enjoy sifting through the Nairobi junkyards.


2016 Car Usage

This is the eighth year I have tracked car usage, so I think it's safe to say this has become a habit. As has the nerdy tracking and graphing of it in Microsoft Excel. (You can check out 2015 here, 2014 here, 2013 here, 2012 here, 2011 here, 2010 here, and 2009 here.)

As before, the Philly totals represent, in order, number of trips, number of legs represented in those trips (i.e. going to and from my in-laws, making one stop to get gas, counts as three legs), and number of legs in which I was driven (rather than driving).

The other city totals represent, in order, number of times I was in that location, number of days I was in that location, number of trips, number of legs represented in those trips, and number of legs in which I was driven.  (Note how unnecessary a car is in northeastern cities like Baltimore and Wilmington, vs. how often I drove in other cities like San Jose or Atlanta.)
Jan 15/41/2 Wilmington 1/1/0/0/0
Feb 12/30/0 Orlando 1/4/4/9/2 Wilmington 3/3/0/0/3
Mar 12/37/0 Wilmington 6/6/2/7/1
Apr 16/47/0 Wilmington 5/5/1/2/1
May 13/42/2 Wilmington 8/8/0/0/3
June 10/27/0 AC 1/2/1/4/0 Wilmington 4/4/0/0/0 Baltimore 1/1/0/0/2 Pittsburgh 1/1/1/6/0
July 11/25/0 Wilmington 5/5/1/2/1 Iroquoina 2/3/3/10/0 Pittsburgh 1/1/1/6/0 
August 7/17/0 Wilmington 4/4/2/4/0 Chicago 1/1/0/0/0 NYC 1/1/0/0/0 Rehoboth Beach 1/15/16/38/3
September 13/39/1 Wilmington 2/2/0/0/0 Pittsburgh 1/2/0/0/6 Atlanta 1/1/1/6/0
October 13/38/1 Wilmington 6/6/1/2/0 Chicago 1/1/0/0/0
November 12/43/0 Poconos 1/2/1/4/0 Harrisburg 1/1/0/0/0 Wilmington 2/2/0/0/0 Atlanta 1/3/0/0/11 Hoboken 1/1/0/0/0 KOP 1/1/1/2/0
December 11/36/4 Pittsburgh 1/2/1/6/0 Chicago 1/2/0/0/3 Wilmington 3/3/0/0/0 Hoboken 1/1/0/0/0 San Jose 1/8/17/38/2

So my Philly total is 145 trips involving 422 legs, plus another 10 legs in which I was driven.  So that works out to about 12 car trips and 36 legs a month.  A lot more than before, which I chalk up to the kids having more extra-curriculars that involve driving (Jada has gymnastics in Conshy, while Aaron's swim meets are rarely transit-accessible).  Plus way more out-of-town activity, reflecting more non-Philadelphia gigs at work.  'Tis an interesting thing to track over time, to see how my life has evolved and my travel changes accordingly.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LX

Here is an excerpt from a book I recently read, "Between the World
and Me," by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body.  And I began to see these two arms in relation — those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.