Posts Tagged 'First posted 2011'

Language Learning: Vocabulary

The other day I noticed I could more or less understand simple Spanish. This is the result of studying other Romance languages, French and Latin, and just a bit of Spanish itself. These little glimpses of comprehension were enough to prompt further study and acted as motivation to deepen my knowledge of the language. Actually, what got me reading Spanish was a headache which I thought would be ameliorated by the sounds of the language, but that’s another story. There are basically three things I do when studying languages: basic grammar, vocabulary and composition, in that order. I’ve come to think of vocabulary as the crucial step to fluency.

With languages, the learning process is never over and one must spend some time maintaining the languages one knows while updating others and maybe beginning the next one. I’ve known at least one of those annoying people who seem to have acquired eight languages with relative ease and almost pass for a native speaker in each. I’m not one of them and actually have to study. It takes time to learn to read a foreign language, even if it is a familiar European language like French or German that doesn’t have a script that looks like a Keith Haring piece or grammar that makes differential equations look like … another Keith Haring piece. It takes a lot of time and effort, I’m sure, even if you have a mutant brain. And vocabulary acquisition in particular takes a lot of time.

One of my past language purchases, an impulse buy really, was Rush Hour German. It sounds like a fairly standard language course and I’ve been more or less happy with it. The file is five hours long, which is usually a good indicator of quality. But here’s what I came to realize listening to the course: there are not enough words in it to make you able to read a German newspaper. Bild, maybe, but that’s mostly pictures of cars and tits. Rush Hour German says it will teach you 400 essential words and that that should get you going. Maybe it will, but it will not get you very far.

English has the most words of any language and my Wikipedia source tells me 2,000 words is enough for a rudimentary grasp of English — the figure is based on research conducted in the fifties. Probably, but you are going to need quite a few more words to read and write anything resembling decent prose. The number sounds low for some reason and 400 sounds ridiculously low for German as well. Perhaps the hours checking French words from dictionaries are knocking in the back of my head.

To get back to the Wikipedia article, research from the 80s tells us that 2,000 words provides 80% reading comprehension (whatever that means), for 6,000 words that number is 90% and 98% for around ten thousand words more. I suspect something of importance happens on the higher end of that scale — perhaps something like what is argued by the generative linguists. At an average rate of 3,000 words per year the average student will have gathered the 12,000 words possessed by the average high-school graduate in four years. Chomsky told Ali G that a normal mature human being will have tens of thousands of words at his or her disposal. I’m guessing here, but tens of thousands sounds like true fluency. I’m sure I know more than 400 words of German and yet can do very little. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know much of what is being left unsaid when I say something.

The larger figures begin to make sense when you think about how long it actually takes the average student to learn a new language. Four years of active study sounds about right — by active I mean that you are learning about eight new words a day or 3,000 a year. It’s a leisurely pace when you compare it to Mr Mutant Brain and his ilk, but even so it does assume daily contact with the language. It also gives us a hint as to how to accelerate language learning: by learning more vocabulary. If your memory is more or less normal, you might be able to double the amount of vocabulary you learn in a year. Make it not the word of the day or eight words a day, but sixteen. It sounds simple, but demands great discipline. Especially if this has to be done while maintaining other languages. An experiment might be orchestrated quite easily and perhaps I’ll do that in the near future. Then, we could tell the world that the secret to learning a language is looking up words in the dictionary and remembering them when you see them the next time.

An Attempt at a Film Review: Possession (1981)

The obvious comparison most will draw from watching Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) is to Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). The difference between the two for me was that I did not feel compelled to write anything about Antichrist as much as I, to use an awkward word here, enjoyed it. Possession is labeled a horror film and it is more terrifying than any genre horror flick. True to the genre, it has a monster, but it is a footnote to the terror of its exploration of madness. Sleep doesn’t come easy after Possession, because it feels like I’ve just woken up from a two-hour dream of reassuring and strangely comforting insanity.

The plot revolves around a crumbling marriage (and other vague elements which are mostly left unexplained), but all in all it appears to be about schizophrenia. The madness is Anna’s, played by the lovely Isabelle Adjani, and partly her husband’s, played by the equally lovely Sam Neill. The fragmented narrative delivers the impact of their insanity to the viewer and creates a disturbing projection of mental illness for us to embrace. The aim is to erase, for a moment, the fine line between everyday rationality and the threat of incomprehensibility.

The enjoyment to be had from the sublime mental disturbance that should perturb the viewer comes from the contrast between one’s immersion into the film and the sane and easygoing world of reason one has to return to, where bills have to be paid and small talk prevails. While I was coming out of it, my mind wandered to a brief conversation with an acquaintance in the office corridor. What did I say to him? Did I make sense? Or did he perhaps catch a candid remark and saw that I was so far gone as to not care about making sense anymore? Did I Charlie Sheen him? For a moment I was sure I was to be committed on the basis of that brief exchange.

Watching Adjani thrash about in the famous subway scene was not nearly as disturbing as seeing her abusing one of her pupils in ballet class, or listening to her monologue about fate and chance. The small slips that betray madness are always more interesting and shocking to watch — it’s a cliche, but things sold by the gram are always more exciting than things sold by the pound. Schizophrenic language has some qualities of poetry, although it is rarely as disciplined of course, and it is easier for these slips to be transferred to the viewer in art because similar linguistic exploration is licenced by the artistic medium. One seldom voiced rule of poetry says that it is on the same plane as madness, but nevertheless distanced from the register of actual lunacy.

Michaux was mentioned in Possession by Anna’s kooky lover Heinrich. In Michaux’s book on mescaline, the author at one point discards language and begins to draw nonsensical pictures. Language breaks down and is replaced by images. His simulated madness realizes language is mute at its core. Schizophrenic language — which should be distinguished from the language of the schizophrenic — doesn’t say anything and yet says too much by underscoring the impotence of language through free association and repetition, and this was very clearly conveyed by Adjani’s relentless performance. It’s a scary thought, if there really are such things as thoughts.

For the longest time, it has been fashionable to talk of language as being mere surface. Truth and meaning have been reduced to ciphers in communication and content (thoughts, ideas, call them what you will) has been deemed a mirage of the linguistic webs we weave to fool ourselves into thinking that there is something behind the veil of words we dress ourselves in. For the first time I find myself appalled by the thought; whether it is because I find myself using the word thought in an unqualified sense of the word or because I know I do so out of despair, I don’t know.

Perhaps the terror comes from precisely this catch-22: the only way to find faith in truth, or find faith in general, is to act in despair and deny the obvious, but a faith in denial is no faith at all and what in fact remains is a recognition of the hopelessness of faith. Something has been gained from this hopelessness, faith itself, but it is sullied by the very means of its birth. There is a word for this in religion: sin. Why accepting faith as an option in this situation is the solution religion offers is still a mystery to me.

If this is what Possession tries to hint at, it means to say the human mind is an aberration, a freakish accident of nature that never should have happened. The fall from grace, forbidden knowledge, consciousness, they all point to a rationalization of rationality by reason to justify its own sordid existence. It’s a rather bleak conclusion to draw from a fine film, but I hope it makes sense. God, I really do.

Twilight — A Review of a Review

My film criticism site of choice is Ruthless Reviews and they don’t disappoint with their review of the new Twilight movie. Modern popular cinema is mostly rubbish, so it’s pleasant to read nihilistic and hateful reviews of its cynical attempts to tap the lowest common denominator. Sometimes these reviews are informative as well, like this one which equates the Twilight franchise with porn. It’s a meditation on the differences between men and women in the worst stand up comic tradition, but it brings out the way in which both porn and Twilight feed the vanity of the spectator.

If Twilight is considered cinema, then Busty Nurses 9 is too. Sure both happen on screen, but the screen is secondary. It’s your own reaction you crave. Everybody knows what will happen already: Bella and Edward get married and start a family, Nina Hartley does reverse cowgirl to the guy with the brain injury and cures his amnesia. We put ourselves inside these visceral simulations via cinema to harvest our deepest desires: Women want to be eternally worshipped by supernatural forces that fight over them while overdosing on praise from this world and the next. Men just want to get boned by sluts. And love has absolutely nothing to do with either of these things.

There is very little to add to this but to say that I believe Dan Brown’s junk seemed to work in the same way. Take one regular young lady with whom all the women in the audience can identify and make her Jesus Christ. The association is automatic and a woman will find herself Jesus Christ for a while, which apparently gives her great pleasure. As with Twilight and love, it has nothing to do with religion nor is it supposed to. It’s designed to make one think one is a god among men, worshiped and revered as divine.

I don’t get this reaction in any palpable way and the review is as close as I will get to watching Twilight, but thinking about it made me realize I do get Charles Bronsonesque revenge fantasies. It’s great fun to see Clint Eastwood or Arnie lose it and murder everything in sight. That’s fiction, by the way, and it should stay fiction, as Frank Miller’s crazy comments have recently shown. Ruthless Reviews reviews these action fantasies as well in their 80s Action section. I get porn, of course, but can’t experience Twilightesque porn in the same way, perhaps for lack of estrogen. Fantasies about being worshiped as a god or by demonic forces for whatever reason sound like nightmares to me, but it’s great to finally see a sensible explanation of the phenomenon that takes into account how some get off on Twilight like others get off on Busty Nurses 1-9. It has made me look at Twilight in a new way and, I hate to say it, even appreciate what the series is trying to do.