Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Leaps Irregular Verbs With A Single Bound!

On that long-ago day when I went to see BOB Chicago, I took a copy of Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop to read on the train, on Niranjana's recommendation.

It wasn't the book I thought it was. For some reason I thought it was going to be about a young woman who had the magical ability to choose "the perfect sari" for each of her customers. (Is that actually a book, or did I make it up?)

Anyway. After reading it I was going to write about Bajwa's description of the "teach yourself a new language" process (is there a single verb to describe the process, or do I have to use the more complicated phrase?), but more exciting things got underway and I forgot all about it.

I was put in mind of it again with this post at SepiaMutiny, which deals with different ways to learn Devanagari and provides a link to what must surely be my most popular post. (And if you link to a blog post that has already linked to you, does it create a sort of circle-vortex-of-infinity thing, spiraling out there in the internet airspace?)

Which brings me to my issue with Bajwa. I'll buy that her protagonist Ramchand learns conversational English through daily translations of quotations and essays. To a point. Ramchand's method is to buy an English book that looks interesting, sit down with a Hindi/English dictionary, and work his way through the book translating one word at a time.

I tried that method, once, when I was going through what Sashi would call an "undergraduate anime phase." I memorized all the hiragana, bought a graphic novel version of Spirited Away written in Japanese, and sat down with an English/Japanese dictionary, assuming that by the time I had translated the entire text, I would have a decent base knowledge of the language.

It didn't work that way. Primarily because of the verbs, which were not listed individually in the dictionary, and were, in fact, not even grouped under their infinitive. Thus a good third of the words I was trying to translate could not be looked up and the sentences soon became incomprehensible.

Perhaps Ramchand had a better dictionary than I did, and perhaps it did an excellent job of explaining the English language's complicated network of perpetually irregular verbs. Perhaps. And if he worked really, really hard, he could memorize all the new English words after reading them once and writing them in a notebook.

But Bajwa never addresses the two other issues I find myself perpetually running into while trying to travel in the opposite direction and learn Hindi: phoneme and script.

Ramchand spends his nights alone, reading English. Then, a few weeks later, he is suddenly able to understand a spoken English conversation between two of his customers. Without hearing these words pronounced as he learns them, how is he able to make the visual/aural connection? Particularly because, unlike Devanagari, each letter in the English alphabet can, at any one time, represent four or five different sounds.

Likewise, Bajwa never spends any time delving into how Ramchand learned the English alphabet. Maybe he already knew it; he did mention learning fragments of English as a child. Maybe the 26 symbols were so paltry compared to the 200+ Devanagari characters that he was able to whip through them in an hour. But Bajwa never mentions this, and it troubled me.

So. Has anyone else read this book, and did you also have trouble with this description of "magical language acquisition?" Or... is this really how it works, and should I be out looking for a book of famous Hindi quotations?

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