Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ještě Jedno Pivo

Members of my Czech class agree that our teacher has improved and that we've gotten used to her, although there is still a longing for our original instructor. I do think our teacher knows the material, but I'm always obliged to ponder what might be a better system, given that different people learn languages in different ways.
Our teacher is always talking about grammar, and I think this is one thing that does not reach our group very well. All of us have studied multiple languages, so we are not dealing with a group of monolingual beginners. However, just because the Indo-European languages have roughly similar habits doesn't mean they use the same grammatical terms for the same things. You might think that if you understand the function of dative or accusative, you're set, but then you find that something that's accusative in one language is nominative in another, or that something takes the genitive for no reason that can be ascertained logically. That's assuming you have a grasp of that sort of thing at all in the first case, and I am concluding that the highly intelligent people in my class are no better at it than I am. I have always thought it was pretty clever of me to be able to recall the difference between an adjective and an adverb, since the difference is rather subtle. And perhaps there isn't even a difference in some languages, as my Turkish classmate seemed mystified by the whole concept.
It has, in fact, become clear to me that I've never had any particular problem with Czech adjectives, but that I know hardly any adverbs, because so many of them are practically the same as their adjectival siblings and so one is not likely to notice a difference. It was something of a surprise to realize this, but being drilled on adverbs and adjectives is of no help. When, in normal conversation, one has no problem using the word "teplo," as soon as one is drilled and has to produce the correct form, the word "teplo" vanishes from the mind and one goes through a tortuous process of "Hmm, this must be an adverb, so I guess it must be teply or maybe teplě." The effort of trying to figure out what to say by running the sentence through a series of grammatical questionnaires (is it locative or accusative, singular or plural? and what would be the locative plural form? etc) completely drives out all one's normal ordinary ability to form sentences. I mean, if I want to say something--in any language including English--I do not laboriously construct my sentence by thinking about its grammar. Instead, I hastily throw together words and phrases into something approximating the usual structure of what I want to say in the language in question. I don't, in normal conversation, think about how the Czech "Je mi lito" is structured and whether that has any relationship to the German "Es tut mir leid" or the French "Je regrette." It is not that I have no interest in the way these things are structured, but it is purely an intellectual, not a communicative, interest. I really don't care if I end up using the Czech equivalent of "I cain't get no satisfaction" so long as my meaning comes across and I'm not saying the likes of "none satisfy can get me."
Well, after class we went out for our beer and our level of fluency improved the instant we left the room. Put it this way, we had no problem discussing the difference between fleas and ticks, all about tickborne illnesses and vaccination, and how ticks resemble little spiders. Nor did we have any problem discussing obstetric and well-baby care as it is practiced in the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Spain, and the United States. I am now informed that Germany has better well-baby exams than the Czech Republic or Hungary, that Austria has routine vaccinations for tick-borne encephalitis, that the Czech Republic has very low infant mortality, and that Spanish women are fed up because their obstetric care is too medicalized, they aren't supposed to give birth at home, and episiotomies are routine.
I could not say that our grammar was perfect, and we used sign language to clarify which word referred to fleas versus which one referred to ticks, but we very seldom resorted to the use of English or German words.



Blogger P'tit-Loup said...

Potrebuji pivo!
I completely agree with you that the way languages are taught is ridiculus. What two year old is required to identify the grammar and structure of their languages? Yet they are the best at learning languages. We should take lessons from them! Language is learned by communicating, not studying grammar. The grammar comes much later, once a basic level of fluency is achieved. But whenever I state that to other spanish students, they think I am nuts. Yet I can get by in 4 languages, and could probably get something in Czech if I was there a few days!

March 21, 2007 6:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are well-babies the offspring of vodniks?

March 21, 2007 4:09 PM  
Blogger Kristen said...

You know how to say episiotomy in Czech?!

March 22, 2007 4:58 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

If well babies aren't the offspring of vodniky, they certainly ought to be (especially if we take into account some of the evidence of old Czech postcards).

As for episiotomies, my dictionary indicates that there is no Czech word for the procedure, just a long descriptive phrase. My Spanish classmate was trying to describe it, I said "episiotomy?" and she nodded. So I guess there we veered from Czech.

And yeah, grammar terms can be mentioned, which sometimes simplifies things, but as a primary tool this doesn't work for me. I failed English grammar regularly and passed my English classes because I'm able to use the written and spoken language correctly.

March 22, 2007 6:35 PM  

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