December 19, 2003

Effleville: Why is "I have a cold" an "idiom"?

The posts on Effle bring me back to my days of suffering through the boredom of foreign language classes back in my school days. From an early age I was always frustrated as my fascination with other languages was doused by drills in sentences one would never use. Who cares whether "my uncle is a lawyer but my aunt has a spoon"?

It is too little acknowledged in language pedagogy that really, knowing the words for KNIFE and DRESS is about as useful as knowing the words for LIVER or AMBIGUOUS -- one can pick up words for silverware as time goes by, but what about EVEN as in "I even had a purple one" or SMELLS LIKE?

It always ticked me off that after God knows how many years of French classes I had no idea how to say THAT TASTES LIKE CHICKEN, GET YOUR FEET OFF OF THERE, or STICK OUT YOUR TONGUE. Often we are told that these things are "idioms," but they actually simply require learning usages of certain nouns or verbs that do not line up with how they are used in English. No one considers it a distraction to teach students similar cases like JE M'APPELLE for "My name is" or ME GUSTA for "I like" in Spanish. But for my money, drills should be constructed that put students through similarly everyday necessities like expressing PICK THAT UP, PUT THAT DOWN, GO ALL THE WAY TO THE END, COME DOWN FROM THERE, STICK IT IN THERE and HE LEFT RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MEETING (ask someone who claims to "know" a language how to say these things and you easily separate the men from the boys!).

The occasional teaching book that takes a chance and gives learners real sentences heartens me that language pedagogy can improve here. Lewis Glinert's marvelous MODERN HEBREW kicks right off with sentences like HEY, BENNY, IS THAT YOU? IT'S ME AGAIN and COME OVER TO THIS LINE, IT'S MOVING. Wonderful! The little-known ASSIMIL book series is also good with this -- spend the half-hour a day they recommend and you actually come out able to lope along with shambling effectiveness in actual conversations, because they try their best to give students words and constructions they will actually need (actually beware the Arabic books, which are a sad exception -- back to the aunts and spoons).

I have always thought that I might make a late-life career out of fashioning some language teaching books that took this approach. For my money, language teaching should focus on 1) vocabulary 2) grammar and just as much, 3) making sure students come out knowing how to render basic concepts like MIGHT AS WELL, SUPPOSE WE... and YOU'LL GET OVER IT. Years ago I made out a long list of hundreds of sentences full of things like this by taking them down while watching TV over a year's time, and find that once one has mastered these 500 or so sentences in a language, one is in a place far beyond what any class or textbook bothers to provide.

I might add that the example par excellence of "Effle-plus" is the famous The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English by one Pedro Carolino, written in 1869 but most often encountered in an 1883 edition with a marvelous introduction by Mark Twain, generally reprinted in abridged form as English As She Is Spoke. Carolino apparently just rendered the French in a French-English guide word-for-word into "English," which he clearly neither spoke nor even read. (First year language classes should teach students how to render the JUST that I used in the last sentence!)

Break this book out at parties and watch guests laugh till tears roll down their cheeks, as Carolino regales us with one "English" sentence after another, often in dandy "dialogues." One of my favorites is the immortal "The Fishing," in which the protagonist exclaims "That pond it seems me many multiplied of fishes. Let us amuse rather to the fishing." Elsewhere we get "idiotisms" (IDIOTISME is "idiom" in French) such as "The stone as roll not heap up not foam" (I'll leave you to guess what this is supposed be) and Carolino's so authentically English version of "to cast pearls before swine," "to make paps for the cats." I was reminded of this last one searching for a web hit to provide on the delightfully tantalizing Carolino book:

"Silence! There is a superb perch!"

"You mistake you, it is a frog! Dip again it in the water."

Posted by John McWhorter at December 19, 2003 07:15 PM