a cross bearing
We had mock language proficiency interviews the other day, just so our instructors could get a better sense of where we were in our language interview and whether they need to panic about our chances of passing the actual language proficiency interview at the end of training.1 The format was simple, the first part being recorded: tell us about yourself, tell us about your host family, tell us about your plans, ask us some questions, do this role-play.
After the formal interview was complete, the interviewers reviewed our errors. Most of my errors were fairly stupid, and I was aware of them when I made them, but there was one rather consistent error that set me thinking: I was leaving off auxiliary verbs. This is not an uncommon learner error, but what troubled me about it was I was completely unaware that I was saying, for instance: ես ուզում իմանալ… (yes uzum imanal…: I want know.)2 instead of ես ուզում եմ իմանալ… (yes uzum em imanal…: I want to know). I am not unaware that the auxiliary is required in certain tenses and if asked to read or listen or write, would notice or include it without fail. So why was it disappearing (or failing to appear) when I spoke? Assimilation is partly to blame, I think, especially in the phrase I used as an example: too many /m/ sounds. Otherwise, I leave it to theorists of language learning to sound clever about my confusion.
Another thing: so at the end of the interview, when the examiner was reviewing my errors, she said to me, ‘I understand that you’re thinking in English and then translating…’ and that got me thinking, because I didn’t think it was quite accurate. I wasn’t thinking in English so much as I had a mess of meaning (apart from language) that I wanted to communicate; the thought itself (or the meaning) was not in any particular language, and when Armenian failed, my brain supplied German,3 and when German failed, only then did my brain revert to English. It felt like I was dipping into my pool of language knowledge to find the means of communication, and due to the limits of what I have been able to learn, was coming back dry, in Armenian at least. Thus if I were asked, ‘what do you want to say,’ I would have an English response, not because the original thought was in English but because English was the means by which I was able to express it.4
- No they do not, but partly because the bar is set quite low: ‘Able to partially satisfy the requirements of basic communication by relying heavily on memorized expressions but occasionally expanding these through simple recombination of elements. Shows signs of spontaneity. Speech continues to consist of learned phrases rather than situationally adapted ones. Errors are frequent and in spite of repetition some Novice-High speakers have difficulty being understood even by sympathetic listeners.’ [↩]
- More or less. [↩]
- The situation requiring a ‘foreign’ language, that is the one my brain rather stintingly supplies. Greek and Latin remain in the passive understanding, sadly. [↩]
- I feel as though I have unwittingly fallen on one side of a theoretical debate I know nothing about and which frankly doesn’t interest me at present. [↩]
This people lives on the smell of wild apples that grow there; and if they go far from home, they take some of these apples with them, for as soon as they lose the smell of them they die.
—Travels of Sir John Mandeville (p. 181)
When you reached your goal, you were locked in again, each having first been handed a small piece of paper, the size of two railway tickets. (At the Lubyanka this was not particularly interesting. The paper was blank and white. But there were enticing prisons where they gave you pages of books – and what reading that was! You could try to guess whence it came, read it over on both sides, digest the contents, evaluate the style – and when words had been cut in half that was particularly essential! You could trade with your comrades. In some places they handed out pages from the once progressive Granat Encyclopedia, and sometimes, it’s awful to say it, from the classics, and I don’t mean belles-lettres either. Visits to the toilet thus became a means of acquiring knowledge.)
(Gulag Archipelago, p. 204)