Can students be tricked into learning Germanic languages?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Every time a Eurobarometer or some other poll comes out the UK is shown to be one of the worst nations in Europe at foreign languages, and the US and Canada plus most other English-speaking nations are also quite bad. At the same time, knowing an extra language at graduation on average brings at least a few extra thousand dollars a year (in IT in Scotland for example those that know extra languages make up to £3,000 extra a year at entry level and continue to earn more than their peers afterwards too), so an extra language is definitely something a student would like to have, if it wasn't too hard to acquire.

It's now 2010 and China is the world's second-largest economy, but let's not forget which countries remain at the top of the Human Development Index. Languages with Germanic languages other than English are in bold.

1. Norway
2. Australia
3. Iceland
4. Canada
5. Ireland
6. Netherlands
7. Sweden
8. France
9. Switzerland
10. Japan
11. Luxembourg
12. Finland
13. United States
14. Austria
15. Spain
16. Denmark
17. Belgium
18. Italy
19. Liechtenstein
20. New Zealand
21. United Kingdom
22. Germany
23. Singapore
24. Hong Kong
25. Greece

That's almost half of the top 25, and a total GDP of $6.8 trillion (more than China, and three times that of the UK).

Now let's take a quick look at the attitude of a student learning a foreign language vs. another subject, English literature.

Foreign language: begin with nearly context-free simple sentences, work on conjugation, learn about grammatical gender, the language doesn't relate to anything else the student studies for at least a year or two. Ich bin Portier, Du bist Portier, Bist du Portier? Nein, ich bin nicht Portier. Ist das Wasser? Ja, das ist das Wasser. Ist das Tee? Nein, das ist nicht Tee.

English literature: students dive into anything they can understand and are assigned to read. Rime of the Ancient Mariner, why not. Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare naturally.

Now what's interesting about the second example is that due to their age many of these works are already nearly foreign languages. And once you get to Beowulf it really is a foreign language, as you're working with something no more comprehensible to an English speaker than German or Dutch at first glance. And yet students tend to dive right in. Let's take a look at one example from the Canterbury Tales, with the words and grammatical functions common to modern Germanic languages in bold:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
5 That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne,
What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
That whilom was ycleped Scithia,
10 And weddede the queene Ypolita,
And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,
With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.
And thus with victorie and with melodye
15 Lete I this noble duc to Atthenes ryde,
And al his hoost, in armes hym bisyde.
A quick glance over the rest of the Knight's Tale shows a number of other words: myn (my, German mein), spak (past tense of speak, German sprach and Dutch sprak), biseken (German besuchen), thurgh (through, German durch), starf (died, German starb, Dutch stierf), neither to been yburyed nor ybrent (y here is the same as the Germanic ge- prefix), sheene (beautiful, German schön), brennynge (burning, German Verbrennung), bleynte (turned pale, German bleichte), and many, many more.

So let's skip straight to the conclusion in order to avoid the post becoming overly long. Since students have no problem with taking on Middle and Old English literature, a curriculum should be devised that balances appreciation of literature with learning about the language itself in its previous iterations, in particular in respects where it used to resemble other Germanic languages used today. There would not need to be any outright mention that this or that word is similar to this or that word in German/Dutch/Norwegian or what have you, it would simply focus on the words and grammar that would prove most useful to a student later on.

Thus, instead of just writing about what Chaucer means here or why Shakespeare said this or that, there would be a bit more of a focus on what is actually written. There would be vocabulary tests, translating sentences from Middle English to modern English, that sort of thing. How far back in English literature the students could get before going on to university is hard to say, but the older the text the more it begins to resemble Icelandic as well as Western Germanic languages, as apparently English and Icelandic used to be mutually intelligible back around the time Beowulf was written.

The end goal would not be to have students fluent in other Germanic languages without ever having seen them (that's still impossible), it would simply be to give them a familiarity with them that gives them the courage to dive right in when truly studying them for the first time, perhaps in university. German and Dutch in particular should look and even sound a bit familiar, and almost feel like a different version of the Middle and Old English that they have become used to over the years. And even if they don't go on to a Germanic language they still end up with a superb knowledge of their own tongue, which can only be useful.

One extra bonus: a slightly improved knowledge of French and Latin too.

If I feel up to it I may devise a sample page or two or three of this curriculum I would be interested in seeing in order to show exactly what I mean. Any thoughts?

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