The Arrival by Shaun Tan: Musical Walls and Bridges

Attending the 2019 Congress of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature was an utterly amazing experience. Both Stockholm itself and the Congress located in Norra Latin—a historic high school now turned conference center in Norrmalm—offered me a continuous deluge of warm collegial camaraderie, stunning urban and riverside views beneath an overcast sky, scholarship that advocates for the marginalized in all its forms—and coffee, lots and lots of coffee… There were so many things about the trip that offered me a chance to feel at home. Yet, of course, I wasn’t home, and the trip also constantly reminded me of my foreignness, from pedestrian-car interactions (no stop signs!) to prices in krona, and from the sight of cathedrals and cobblestones and the letter “å” to the unremitting child-consciousness of Swedish culture. This is why for my first post-Stockholm post, I decided to explore a children’s book that deals more intensely with the concept of foreignness.

arrival1.JPG

The Arrival

by Shaun Tan

Hodder Children’s Books (2006)

Text: None! This is what one might call a wordless graphic novel, each page filled with pictures in various orientations. I had heard of this book before, though never read it, and then it came up in a keynote presentation on the second day. While browsing a book display during one of our frequent fika coffee breaks, I saw the recognizable cover picture accompanied by a single unexpected word, “Ankomsten”, the Swedish translation of “The Arrival”. For a moment I felt like the quizzical man on the cover, staring at a little alien creature, considering the odd mixture of familiar and unfamiliar that a foreign word can conjure.

Picture: The pictures are arresting, powerful, and intricate, rendered in muted tones and depicting a fantasy/futuristic setting that nevertheless references turn of the century America, specifically the experiences of immigrants passing through Ellis Island. The basic idea behind the book is that there is a man who leaves his family and travels to an entirely new metropolis, a place where absolutely everything is unfamiliar, strange, and foreign. He—and we as readers—struggle to make sense of this new place as the character seeks food, shelter, work, and above all human connection. Gradually and with the help of kind people he comes to understand the ways and codes of this place, reminding me of a George MacDonald quote from Lillith: “The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.” It is a timely, challenging, and moving book, important for children and adults alike to engage with.

Music: This book entrenches readers in the complex and painful process of learning, specifically of learning to navigate through and within an unfamiliar culture. Music, as an expression and carrier of culture, appears twice in the book and vividly communicates this shift from confusion to understanding. The first picture below depicts the arriving man’s first encounter with this new world. 

arrival2.JPG

The man is confused at this point in the story, and we are thrust with him into the middle of an alien world. The invasive protocols of immigration services, the goings-on of bustling people in the streets, the appearance and behaviors of new animals, everything is overwhelming to his senses. The street musicians appear ominous: rendered in very dark hues with dower faces and surrounded by rat-like birds, the otherworldliness of the instruments they play—which include a space-age violin and an accordion with a serpentine tuba bell—is palpable. The concept of “noise” is useful here, as is an oft quoted definition by Anna Tsing: noise is the “awkward, unequal, unstable creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (Tsing 2004, 1). The oddity of the picture and the imagined music—some of which seems to be visibly shooting up out of the tuba bell into the sky—is meant to create a wall of noise. Unsettled by difference, the man has no opportunity to come to grips with its discomfiting significance.

[Aside: Tan’s imagined world of organological difference is actually remarkably similar to our own world. Modern western culture has a very limited notion of what instruments are “normal”, and in the margins of time and space lie instruments that display the human capacity for imaginative music- and/or noise-making. Below: A) a French piano accordion from 1880s on display in MIM Phoenix, B) John Matthias Augustus Stroh’s mechanically amplified Stroh violin invented in 1899, C) Adolph Sax’s trombone à pistons from 1876 on display in MIM Brussels, E) a ca. 1900 harp-guitar by Cesare Candi of Genoa, and F) Linda Manzer’s 42-string Pikasso guitar of 1984.]

The next musical encounter in The Arrival offers fresh possibilities for the newcomer on his journey towards musical and cultural understanding. After befriending a family and learning their own traumatic story, he is invited to dinner. Shared food, conversation, and laughter lead to an after-dinner musical concert, and a new relationship to this culture’s music. We see each member of the family happily contributing to this delightful Hausmusik experience. The father plays a miniature version of the street musician’s trumpet accordion, the mother plays a turnip-shaped ocarina with glowing orb of musical warmth, and the son sings—with his Pokémon lizard!—while strumming on a four-stringed circular guitar reminiscent of a Chinese ruan

arrival3.JPG

The newcomer’s relationship with this family offers him a bridge toward understanding the meanings of music in this foreign place. Within the safety of a warm domestic setting he is able to draw near enough and to sit still long enough to listen with open ears and to ask questions of the performers in order to approach understand. Tan’s two images of music in The Arrival illustrate the contextuality of whether we interpret something as noise or as music. Relationship opens the door.

Gaelic Advent Treats

My thanks to Daily Gaelic - Gàidhlig Gach Latha for a little season's cheer this year in the form of an emailed virtual advent calendar. There's something thoroughly enjoyable about an advent calendar, about the anticipation, the mystery, the big reveal. It's about unwrapping a present.

Edinburgh, Scotland gripped in the icy embrace of Cailleach Bhèara, the Hag of Winter!

Edinburgh, Scotland gripped in the icy embrace of Cailleach Bhèara, the Hag of Winter!

[Cue pivot chord modulation]

Orthography can be a bit like unwrapping a present. (See what I did there? :)) And sometimes that present seems to have been bound together with layers and layers of duct tape! The relationship between written letters and spoken sounds is not always straightforward even in English, and the rules of the game in other languages has the ability to cause quite a bit of consternation. Scottish Gaelic is notoriously baffling to the neophyte, owing largely to the fact that 18 letters are used to make some 60+ sounds (depending on how you count).

I found the  particular Gaelic advent gift particularly challenging and therefore all the more satisfying after unwrapping; I opened the virtual door to find these words: "Teóclaid teth". Here was my process in unwrapping just the first word.
 

  1. The "t" is next to a slender vowel "e" which means that it is pronounced like "tch" [tʃʰ].
  2. Because there's an accent over the "ó" the "e" is silent and we get a nice long "o" sound [o:].
  3. The "c" is hard [kʰ].
  4. The "l" is beleaguered by broad vowels on either side "ó...a" so it is technically a velarized alveolar lateral approximant, aka a sort of throaty "l" [ɫ] like in "Allah".
  5. The "a" is silent as it's only there to satisfactorily surround the "l" with broad vowels.
  6. As the vowel of an unstressed syllable, the "i" is a short, humble, little "i" like in "fish".
  7. The "d" is next to a slender vowel "i" which means that it is pronounced like the end of "fridge" [ʤ].

Put that all together and you get something like this [tʃʰo: kʰɫiʤ] or (since IPA tends to be just as confusing as Gaelic) approximately "tcho-klidge".

Now repeat it a few times.

"tcho-klidge"

"tcho-klidge"

"tcho-klidge"

...

Still need a hint? Look at this picture:

Photo credit: me. My wife enjoying a cup of Hot...

Photo credit: me. My wife enjoying a cup of Hot...

Chocolate!

Add "teth" ([tʃʰɛ:] or "tcheh") to the end and you've got "teóclaid teth" or "hot chocolate". I think there's something so satisfying about deciphering this mystery word. I found myself immersed in the raw musicality of the Gaelic language, riding the waves of half-understood orthographic rules, and found myself surprised by the recognition of the familiar in the midst of the strange.

In the midst of an all-too familiar holiday season, perhaps we could remember to accept the traditional as well as the unexpected. And we could have more hot cocoa! :)

The Music of Language: Gaelic Summer

Summer is for many things—for getting much needed rest, for enjoying the sun, for catching up on all the reading that has been put off, and for rediscovering one's hobbies. One of the passions that I will be pouring myself into during the coming months is language learning, specifically investing some time into my old friend Scottish Gaelic or Gàidhlig.

I've been attracted to Gàidhlig for a long time. I'm sure it has a lot to do with learning to play the tin whistle in elementary school and watching Braveheart in junior high. There was just something about the look of the words, the melodious guttural sounds, the familiar and unfamiliar patterns and structures. I can remember eagerly scouring the internet in my father's home office for lists of phrases and vocabulary, dutifully drilling myself on grammatical constructions with James MacLaren's Beginner's Gaelic (1923) during lunch breaks as a sales associate at Border's Books, and struggling through Prof. Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh's complex phonological analyses at Fuaimean na Gàidhlig.

Credit: Joe Fox,  A82 Bi-lingual Scottish Gaelic English Road Sign Scotland Uk   Link.

Credit: Joe Fox, A82 Bi-lingual Scottish Gaelic English Road Sign Scotland Uk
Link.

As enjoyable and useful as these endeavors were, the approaches all suffered from the same drawback: they all took reading and writing as their starting point. For Gàidhlig this poses a particular challenge due to the complex and seemingly enigmatic relationship between the way the language is written and the way it is spoken. As I learned, I would continually find myself put in the frustrating position of either learning to speak phrases or words incorrectly, or of tiptoeing through a dense thicket of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) rules. It would begin to feel less and less like learning a vibrant language, and more like doing calculus or pitch-class-set analysis. There had to be another way!

I think I've found another way.

I've written previous posts about a language learning technique called "shadowing". It involves immersing yourself in a language's sounds in real time, internalizing its vocal patterns, rhythmic cadences, and phrase structures. Shadowing is essentially about the music of language; at its base level it allows you to engage with the raw sounds of a language freed from the distractions of writing, semantics and grammar. This is not to say that those aspects of the language are unimportant, but rather that the initial focus upon the musical characteristics of music engages your brain in a unique and powerful manner. It's a way of establishing a strong foundation upon which the rest of the language can confidently stand.

Here is my summer plan:

  • I am shadowing with Litir Beag, a podcast by Roddy MacIean on BBC Alba, the Gàidhlig language branch of the BBC. These "little letters" are for intermediate learners and Roddy specifically speaks the words slowly and clearly—ideal for shadowing! I do not read the Litir Beag transcripts, nor do I read the English translations—not yet. This stage is all about engaging with the sounds. Already I have noticed two interesting developments:
    • I can match sounds with much more accuracy and fluency in Gàidhlig than in a language which I know much better. Shadowing in German, for instance, is more overwhelming because my mind not only listens to sounds while speaking them back, but additionally keeps busy parsing grammatical functions, imagining written text, and visualizing descriptive or narrative meaning.
    • I can begin to intuit meaning through musical and contextual patterns in the recordings. Strings of numbers or dates have their own particular sound and cadence. Also phrases such as "he said" or "she said" stand out loud and clear because of the way Roddy performs the narrative dialogues.
  • I have just begun to shadow to another program on BBC Alba, Beag air Bheag, an educational website. Geared towards absolute beginners, this program takes you "bit by bit" through graded lessons, each unit ending with a conversational dialogue that sums up all the main points of the chapter. Again, I am avoiding reading the transcripts and the translations for the time being. The back-and-forth format of these simple dialogues allow me to intuit conversational characteristics such as questions, answers, frustration, incredulity, and affirmation.
  • The next stage in my plan involves carefully introducing the transcripts and translations to my sound world. The music of the language and the sounds that I've already internalized should continually act as the foundation. As I slowly look through Litir Beag and Beag air Bheag texts, I hope to continually say, "Oh! That's how you spell it and that's what it means!" and not "Oh! That's how you pronounce it!" There should be little to no renegotiation of the spoken sounds, though some tricky ones (such as the hurriedly spoken definite articles "an" and "am") which were unclear in the recordings can now be solidified. The point is that the writing should further illuminate and give definition to the sounds that I already know, not visa versa. 
  • This method should result in the following improvements and opportunities by the end of the summer:
    • I will have spoken a lot of Gàidhlig sounds, continually intuiting its musical patterns, cadences, and rhythms.
    • I will have a better chance of understanding the writing system and its correspondence to the sounds. Now the two can work in tandem rather than in tension and I can begin to read books with confidence.
    • I will have enjoyed myself, succeeding at doing something difficult that I love!
  • Perhaps by next summer I could be in the position to actually speak Gàidhlig with living people. It would be somewhat challenging given and sparsity of Highland villages in Southern California. :) But who knows? Skype has opened up the doors to exciting new communication opportunities, and institutions like Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Colaisde na Gàidhlig provide plenty of pedagogical resources both through distance learning and on-site visits.
Credit: Steve Greaves,  Scottish Highlands   Link.

Credit: Steve Greaves, Scottish Highlands
Link.

I am very excited about this plan and think that it will prove very helpful. By engaging directly with the sounds, I will have more confidence as I move into the more theoretical and structural aspects of the language. Let me know if these ideas are inspirational, confusing, or if you have other techniques that work for you. Bottom line, I am enjoying myself and my summer. I hope you do too!

Operation Trilingual: 22 Week Assessment

It has been 22 weeks since I first began my Operation Trilingual Language Learning System. As outlined in my previous post, I planned on dividing my time between different types of Input and Output to create a perpetuum mobile of linguistic beauty. Now that some time has passed I need to take stock of what has been accomplished and decide whether or not my efforts are pushing me in the direction I want to go.

I recorded my progress on the following chart:

I'm voracious! And color coordinated.

I'm voracious! And color coordinated.

The green column shows the date in weekly groups.
The red section charts German activity and the blue French.
For each day I wrote what type of Activity (Narrative Input, Culling Input, Output), what Material was used (text, audio, flashcard program, etc.), Duration of time spent on that activity, and any special Notes.

That's how it worked; here's how I assess the journey:

  • Accomplishments
    • Daily Incentive: I didn't like having to write N/A and 0hrs for a given day. Kept up my work in both languages daily.
      • Highest weekly total: 16hrs 22mins
      • Lowest weekly total: 1hr 33mins
    • Lots of Narrative Input: By far the easiest Activity, I have made my way through a healthy helping of audio books of C.S. Lewis' Prinz Kaspian (finished) and Der Reise auf der Morgenröte (in progress) in German, reading German translations of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, and reading French, literary fairy tales by the Comtesse d'Aulnoy. Yum!
    • Academic Culling Input: in addition to passing my French language test for UCSB, I had to put in some time to translate foreign documents and articles for my classes and papers. One source included reading a German keyboard treatise from the early 1700s written in a very difficult to read fraktur script.
    • Exciting Output: I got the chance to have a lengthy conversation with a German speaker, exchange friendly emails with a Swiss pianist in German, and send some Facebook messages to a French friend.
    • Free Speak Output Focus: Sometimes it's hard to decide what to yak about. Aaron's Sentence Expansion Drill and Sentence Transformation Drill are excellent to warm up a language's rules and rhythms.

I see these accomplishments as a MAJOR VICTORY given the insanely busy life of the PhD graduate student. It probably wouldn't be an understatement to say that 80% of my Input was done on the bus to or from school and the other 20% in bed while trying to calm down and go to sleep after a busy day.

But the system still requires some revamping:

  • Short on Goals: My way of tracking progress works as a documentation of what I've done, but does not challenge me to meet self-imposed goals. The "do something every day" mandate has been great to keep up the momentum, but now I think it's best to give myself some specific goals I can aim for:
    • Not enough Output: Going forward, I'm going to try to have Output, probably in the form of writing, at least 3 times a week in each language. Perhaps I can make it a running story that I continue to enlarge, or I can rewrite sentences from my Culling Input with verb tense transformation. I'll have to experiment to figure out what works best, but definitely increasing the Output.
    • I need to go to the German restaurant (Brummis) and the French restaurant (Pacific Crêpes) in a few months to keep up the waiter-chatting inspiration.
  • Interesting vs. Useful Materials
    • I've made sure to read or listen to Materials that I enjoy. Thus the great wealth of fairy tales. This has been excellent for my enjoyment, but a little light on the vocabulary that is most helpful in conversation or reading academic documents. Perhaps a little sprinkling of those types would be beneficial. The former may mean more shadowing to podcasts and the latter more Wikipedia articles on composers or musical terminology.
    • (I just got an audio book of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers for Christmas!)

With the new year starting today, I think I'm in a pretty good place as far as my desire to be trilingual. I had wanted to start adding Russian, but I need to wait on that for a while as I take the time to set and meet these goals, especially the Output. Close the loop!

My best to everyone in the coming year on all your linguistic adventures. Keep the fire going!

Operation: Trilingual

A few weeks ago I had my second language learning coaching session with The Everyday Language Learner's Aaron Myers, a birthday present generously given to me by my family. During our first session we talked about directed and motivated ways of breaking through with German, but now I am at the point where I must say "bon jour" to an old friend: français. This will be the fourth time that I've set out to learn French, a language with which I've had an on-again-off-again relationship since elementary school. Back then, I was intrigued by the luxuriant sounds of the language and inspired by my ancestry to francophone Canada. Today I continue to delight in the sounds and the heritage, with the addition of UCSB requiring it for Musicology, the possibility of my PhD work focusing on the 1800s, and close familial co-learning: my brother lives in Europe and speaks it, my sister will eventually move to Ottawa and should speak it, and my wife wants to speak it.

So my question for Aaron was how to resurrect French while maintaining German. It can be done. One must be organized, inspired, and willing to repeatedly assess whether or not they are working in the direction they want. With help from Aaron, my ESL trained sister, and LucidChart here's what I came up with to help me make this work (click on it to make it bigger):

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

Here's how it works:

     Input: Language comes at you, flies like a ninja into your ears or eyes! I see two different types of input.

          The first (A) I call Narrative/Music. This is when you immerse or inundate yourself in listening or reading, not really stopping to look up words or checking grammar, just getting with the flow of the story and noticing the cadence of the sounds. (It's what babies do for a good three years.) Because you're not stopping, you develop contextual skills (that intonation sounded like a question, these people must be angry with each other, etc.) to help piece together what you don't get the first time. I'm not at the stage where I can just listen to German radio or watch a French documentary. That would be drowning, not inundating. For me, that means using materials I know pretty well in my mother tongue, using my prior knowledge to fill in the blanks and enjoying the story which I can anticipate and enjoy from a different perspective. At this point, my German listening consists of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series in audiobook form (I'm just starting book 2, Prinz Kaspian von Narnia) and reading consists of short Wikipedia.de articles on composers. I have not figured out yet what I want to do in French, though the audiobook Harry Potter et l'école des sorciers and Perrault's Contes de la mère l'Oye are definite possibilities. I've written a bit about contextual reading in this post on parallel texts.

          The second type of Input (B) I call Word Culling. The Narnia books are a very good level for me; I'm getting about 80% of the words and can fill in the rest with prior knowledge. The 20% I'm not totally sure about becomes an extremely manageable stockpile of words that I can focus on: isolate them, look them up, put them on a flashcard system (I use Anki) and be sure to catch them when I review a chapter or reread an article. I love the bite-sized-ness of this system because it has a high level of exposure, high level of story/enjoyment, and a low level of flipping through a dictionary. But the best way to review these words I've found is...

     Output: You have to dish it out! This is the hard part for me, especially with the horrible dance that some languages produce: is that noun feminine? what sort of preposition is that? is the verb a verb of motion? what's the adjective ending? Here's what I'm working on: I take the words that I've culled from Input B (notice the arrow) and I use them as my wordlist to write or speak. If I just learned the word for "accompaniment" I write a short paragraph about what it's like being an accompanist who accompanies with an accompaniment... Perhaps I send it in to Lang-8 and get some feedback on how that's going. Or I have what I like to call Free Speaking in which I improvise sentences out loud, usually about what I'm doing or have done or will do: Numi, we are walking on the street; I ride my motorcycle to work and the clouds are cold and wet, etc. It feels pretty silly, but it is the only way I will improve in output. You've got to babystep before you can laufen. When you use these culled words this way they morph from flashcard words you didn't know to speech acts that are linked to specific places, situations, and contexts. I'll never forget that in German you pretty much always need to use an adjective when you say the word "wind" (cold, chilly, humid, scorching, etc); according to an editor at Lang-8, it's just funny without it. Then I use this knowledge to better understand my Input (notice the other arrow), catching it when I review sections that I've culled, and catching it faster when I encounter it during other narrative/musical moments.

So that's my method. I'm pretty happy about the diagram and how it reinforces itself. It's like a perpetual motion machine of glorious language learning awesomeness! Let me know if this idea is helpful, what materials you see yourself using in Input, or ways it could be better!

Tchüß!

Salut!

Danke, Lang-8

Today I felt enough self-rejuvenation to rekindle the language learning flame that was ignited back in March when I talked to Aaron Meyers from The Everyday Language Learner. One of my assignments was to cultivate a habit of writing in German — and for that, Lang-8 is a pretty nice resource. As I manned the small circulation music library at the Music Academy of the West (quite a soporific affair) I wrote out and submitted a modest essay outlining my duties. In about five hours I got back a corrected version complete with encouragement! Here 'tis auf Deutsch and in English for your Wednesday evening enjoyment:

That's me in the blue hat and red stockings: standard Music Academy of the West garb.

That's me in the blue hat and red stockings: standard Music Academy of the West garb.

Ein Tag in der Musikbibliothek

Heute arbeite ich in der Musikbibliothek in der Westmusikakademie in Santa Barbara, Kalifornien. Im Sommer veranstalten sie musikalischen Unterricht für mehrere Studenten, die aus der Ferne kommen. Auch wenn es in der Bibliothek ruhig ist, habe ich so viel zu tun! Wenn ich ankomme, setzte ich mich auf einen Stuhl neben einer Auskunft mit Computer, Telefon und Papierkorb. Danach mache ich meine Hausaufgaben. Ich lese zum Beispiel Propps "Morphologie des Märchen" oder schreibe mein musikalischer Artikel. Wenn das Telefon klingelt, dann muss ich den Anruf entgegennehmen und "Hallo, Bibliothek" sagen. Falls ein Student oder Lehrer herein kommt, erklingt ein leiser Alarm und dann muss ich Fragen beantworten, Bücher oder Notenblätter finden oder die Gegenstände mit dem Computer ausbuchen. Aber jetzt weiß ich nur, dass ich nicht schlafen darf!

A Day in the Music Library

Today I am working in the music library in the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. In the summer they offer musical instruction for many students who come from all over. Even though the library is peaceful I have so much to do! [Not sure how to express sarcasm in German yet.] When I arrive I sit myself in a chair behind a service desk with computer, telephone, and waste paper basket. Then I do my homework. I read, for example, Propp's "Morphology of the Fairy Tale" or write my music article. When the telephone rings [it did... once] then I take the call and say "Hello, library." If a student or teacher comes in, a little bell rings and then I answer questions, find books or sheet music, or check out materials with the computer. But now I just know that I can't fall asleep!

Reading Parallel Texts

Lately I've found a wealth of encouragement from this Every Day Language Learner post, Language Learning Tip: Using Parallel Texts. I have several books of this type, mostly German (Grimm Märchen, poetry anthologies and collections by Goethe and Rilke), but also a Gàidhlig collection of folk tales and Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid in Middle Scots. Moreover the internet is chalk full of ways to synthesize the concept. In the past, when faced with an intimidating swath of foreign language, I've taken the machete-through-the-jungle approach, with minimal glances at my mother-tongue translation, convinced that the effort of immersion should be assuaged by English as little as possible.

Anne Anderson's princess from  The Golden Bird  doesn't judge a book by its cover.

Anne Anderson's princess from The Golden Bird doesn't judge a book by its cover.

According to Aaron's post, this is not the best way to go about it. He suggests first reading a portion of the text (as much as a single sentence to a whole chapter) in your native language, gaining an understanding of its meaning, and only then taking on a chunk of the target language. This way you spend little if no time looking up individual vocabulary words and have much more contextual or narrative meaning to assign. It also helps clear up idiomatic difficulties and generally keeps you going further longer. This concept has already been at work when I've read sections of the Bible, Harry Potter, or any of the Narnia stories because of my background knowledge.

Since reading this article, in addition to feeling good about being placed in the "Intermediate" category, I've barreled through no less than four Grimm stories with an extremely high comprehension and retention. I've discovered that this method is much more difficult with poetry given the high level of abstraction and grammatical anomalies (although my dreams seem to be haunted by Klopstock's Das Rosenband). My greatest joy has now been to read Friedrich Motte Fouqué's Undine in English, a fairy tale greatly admired by George MacDonald. I had bought the little yellow copy of the story in German while in Leipzig last year, but have always felt as if I should be much further along in vocabulary before I stumbled through it. Now, having read it once over in my mother tongue, to great satisfaction and joy, I am well equipped to take a stab at it in the original. I hope to use this same idea to get through my languishing copies of stories by Kafka, Ende's Neverending Story, and Goethe's Young Werther.

Happy reading!

The Art of Shadowing

I truly love foreign languages. Ever since I was little I have been attracted by the mystery of different linguistic cultures, the sounds, the shapes and configurations of letters, the similarities and differences, the shadowy but inviting veil between confusion and illumination. I think my first experiences with foreign language came from Bible stories, worlds filled with lengthy lists of mysterious names and cities and rivers, and finding my own name among its pages certainly confirmed my place and invited my participation in a life of language learning. You cannot get far in literature or music without coming across a linguistic frontier, and I simply find them delightful and stirring.

Up until this point my language interests have lacked a certain focus. I have never become "fluent" by any technical or personal standard and most forays into a given study have been more in the area of the hobby. (Not that this is bad! I wouldn't give up a moment of learning the Greek alphabet with my brother in elementary school or learning French by casette in junior high. Those experiences have made me who I am today.) This post explores the paradigm shift that I am experiencing in my linguistic study, an exciting change that promises to enrich and focus my already eager passion.

Lava Gull  (1991) by Alan Gouk.

Lava Gull (1991) by Alan Gouk.

It all starts with the blog world. Seriously, type "second language acquisition blog" in Google or click on one of the language blog links to the left. There is a whole world of people who love nothing better then exploring great ways to learn languages. I particularly appreciate the combination of opinion, study, and outright encouragement I find in blogs like The Mezzofanti GuildEDLL, and polyglossic. It's best to stay positive.

Here are the things I've been doing to stay positive. My language at this point is German: the tongue of my maternal ancestors (Bachmans und Luckensmeyers), the language of Vogelweide, Luther, Bach, Goethe, and Schoenberg, and the one in which every musicologist needs to be proficient. Growing up my learning tools have consisted of learning grammar, some vocabulary, and maybe trying to memorize a song or poem. Very solitary, very inefficient, and ultimately discouraging. In 2009-10 I took a year of German at a community college, an extremely uplifting environment that got me enough chops to start reading fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers. Personally, I suggest all these things and would add to them the following unique and exciting technique that I've recently gotten into: shadowing. (Disclaimer: I'm not an expert, just enthusiastic.)

Shadowing goes something like this. Remember when you were in, say, third grade and you thought it would be awesome to "show off your cognitive erudition" (also known as "annoy people") by repeating whatever anyone else says as they're saying it. It's word piggybacking. If you did not ever do that as a child, perhaps you have had it done to you, or maybe you've heard the echo effect in the second verse of Britten's This Little Babe from A Ceremony of Carols. The object is to listen and mimic, immediately, almost simultaneously, the foreign words you are hearing. Additionally one can shadow more effectively by saying the sounds as loudly and clearly as possible and by pacing briskly. That last part is a little awkward at first, but is intended to challenge your brain to multitask and therefore get the language into the "automatic" section of your mind. Interested? Confused? More description here.

Duchamp Descending a Staircase  by Du-u-cha-ha-m-mp-p himself.

Duchamp Descending a Staircase by Du-u-cha-ha-m-mp-p himself.

This is how I do it. I subscribe to podcasts from www.SlowGerman.com a series of talks by Annik Rubens of Münich. I listen to half-minute intervals on my iPod with earbuds, saying the sounds as she says them, while pacing back and forth on my porch, repeating until I feel as though I am matching the sounds and inflections of her voice. Later I will read the text and put together more of the meaning that I wasn't able to glean from just listening. The benefits of this process after a month are:

  • I am exercising my listening skills, something you can't really do by just reading, but something you don't want to leave until the last minute if you actually expect to have a back-and-forth conversation with a native. Identifying words without reading is very difficult for me, sort of like musical dictation, but that probably means its worth doing.
  • I am ingesting the "music" of German. Even if I don't know the exact meaning I can generally identify clauses, verbs, nouns, prepositional phrases, etc. I can especially hear the double-verb sentence endings (...fahren wollen). These forms and sentence chunks become ear-worms that play repeatedly in my head.
  • Afterwards I can babble in German, funny little sentences. Huge boost to the confidence, feeling things roll off your tongue, even if they roll without complete control. With the forms in my head it's just a matter of learning some more vocabulary and brushing up on grammar, mostly genders and adjective inflection. 

If you want something to revitalize and challenge your language learning experience, I would suggest trying out shadowing. It is truly exhilarating (SlowGerman.com is not quite as slow as you might think and sometimes it feels like getting chased by a pack of wolves to keep up) and quite satisfying to glean meaning from repeated listenings without the help of a text.

This is often how it feels to do shadowing, although the consequences of slipping are not nearly as tragic.

This is often how it feels to do shadowing, although the consequences of slipping are not nearly as tragic.

Boris on Butterfly Beach

The past week and a half has been quite eventful. Jess and I pulled the trigger and came down from Roseville to our new duplex in Santa Barbara. We made due for the first few days with two chairs and a mattress on the floor - just until my bargain huntress of a wife found a free dresser, free bed frame and box spring, free couch, and $10 bookshelf. Things are starting to look like a house. Santa Barbara is starting to look like a home as well, with familiar beaches and streets, new discoveries and surprises, and the constant bumping into old friends in the most providential places.

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch  by Chris Potter. 

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch by Chris Potter. 

Amidst looking for summer employment and networking, I'm trying to keep loose by brushing up on my German ("shadowing" and "dictation" with a podcast), rereading some history books in preparation for the UCSB placement tests (history, theory, and musicianship), and going on very long walks with Jess and Numi on various beaches and through various parks (Numi is a complete nutter for the waves!). Check out Jess's blog for upcoming pictures that attempt to capture something of the outrageous beauty that overflows everywhere in this place. I'm going to write a bit on Boris Goltz and his Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 2 (1934-35), getting some mileage out of my thesis and keeping up those writing and analyzing skills for the two months before school starts.

Boris Grigorevich Goltz (1913–1942) was born in the city of Tashkent. I wish there was more information on his family - their ancestry, how long they had lived there, why, what they did during the 1916 Basmachi Revolt, or where their sympathies lay in the violent anti-Bolshevik riots that lasted into late 1920s. All we know (thanks to a short monograph by Rafael Frid) is that thirteen-year old Boris moved to Leningrad in 1926. He worked, like Shostakovich several years earlier, as a silent movie accompanist, and took piano lessons, again like Shostakovich, from Leonid Nikolayev. It wasn't until the Leningrad harmony professor Venedict Pushkov saw the young pianists sketches for twenty-four preludes that Goltz gained the confidence to pursue composition. He graduated from the Conservatory in piano in 1938 and composition in 1940. Within that time he had composed or sketched out quite a wealth of pieces (almost all completely lost), got married to a piano colleague, and had every mark of excelling as a composer.

In 1941 Russia entered into WWII. Goltz, apparently not senior enough to be shipped off to one of those artistic refuge communities in Siberia, joined the Baltic Fleet Political Administration, a group of composers stationed in Leningrad, charged with the task of writing patriotic songs and plays for performing groups and military choirs. His songs in particular enjoyed wide success, one-hit-wonders like “The Song of Anger,” “The Song of Vengeance,” and “Shining Star in the Heavens.” Despite the idealized texts, Goltz and his colleagues worked in debilitating hunger and cold, crammed into a small room and composing without the aid of a piano. Seven months into the Siege of Leningrad, Goltz died of malnutrition.

It's a little ironic to write about the tragic, 1942, shivering-in-the-Leningrad-winter death of a Soviet composer with the sunny Pacific Ocean breezes wafting through my 2012 window. I can only hope that as I write about this composer and his music that I not be disingenuous and that I attempt to come from as good a place as I can - that of breathing a small measure of life into the memory of a nearly forgotten, but ultimately noteworthy individual.