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Beyond dabbling

I found this quote a long time ago in a festschrift for Thomas O. Lambdin and absolutely love it:

…Prof. Lambdin simply does not dabble in his languages. He attacks them, not only with zeal (though that is always present), but with a plan, to conquer them.

First, learn the basic grammar as it is commonly understood (or misunderstood), some basic vocabulary; read some texts. Then, like a linguistic pathologist, take the language apart: scrutinize the lexical bones, particularly those idioms, usually associated with the most common verbs, that present obstacles in every language; analyze the morphological muscles, render them unformidable; track down the syntactical tendons, overlooked by others. Meanwhile, put most of the dictionary on flash cards and commit it to memory. Now read the best of the literature like a native, until boredom sets in from lack of challenge, and it’s time to move on.

The number and range of languages that have been subjected to this process is remarkable: there are the Semitic languages, of course; but also Berber, Finnish, Turkish, Swahili, Hindi, Chinese, and some fifty or sixty others, it seems….

And when called upon to transmit his knowledge and understanding, another side of his extraordinary linguistic ability came into play; as a teacher of language, he is simply the best. It is one thing to be able to learn languages; it is quite another to describe them with such clarity that others are able to gain a similar understanding.

Occasionally, an available grammar would meet with his approval and be used. But more often, he would find the grammars too frustrating; if he did not feel comfortable with a language after going through a given grammar, he would not expect his students to. So he would write his own, a clear report of the dissection process described earlier, the morphology and syntax broken down into easily comprehended lessons, the vocabulary glossed in such a way that the words really do have meaning, and exercises, lots of exercises, written to ensure that the grammar and vocabulary make sense and are remembered, so that by the time the first texts are encountered, the language is an old friend, not a dimly perceived, refractory set of vaguely familiar forms.