Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Reading, Translating, and Decoding

As we wrap up a year of family German classes (fulfilling foreign language requirements for the old kids and providing a chance to for me to check off something that I've been wanting to learn in order to help with research, etc.) I find myself taking stock of my abilities in the language. What I want, even more than the ability to converse fluently (which I have little opportunity for) is the ability to read in German relatively well. Right now I'm at something of a halfway stage. I know enough of the grammar and the most common words that I can translate a passage, with ample help from a dictionary to look up words I don't know. (Honestly, I'm usually just typing unfamiliar words into my phone or computer, because it's faster than turning pages to learn meanings.)

However, as I was working through a couple pages of German this way the other night, it was striking me that aside from my vocabulary issues there's still something fundamentally different about what I'm doing in comparison to how an actual German reader would deal with a text. What I'm doing right now might be better termed decoding, because in some ways I'm still turning things into a more standard English structure as I figure them out.

For instance, the use of a past continuous is very common in German, and a standard sentence order in that case is: [Phrase denoting time or place] [helping verb: a form of sein (to be) or haben (to have)] [subject] [object] [past participle].

Laying something like that out in English might go like this:

Early in the morning had we on the train to Berlin to ride.

Of course, in English we'd keep the verb together, and a natural order would be something like:

We had to ride on the train to Berlin early in the morning.

Now, these are easy enough words that I'd make it through fine on my own and wouldn't even be consulting the dictionary, but throw in a bunch of vocabulary and I find myself going back to my old schoolboy Latin habits. Latin, of course, also has the habit of saving the verb for last. We all get the explanation during the early weeks of our first Latin class that this creates a sense of anticipation as you want to find out what is being done by the subject to the object in the sentence. However, I virtually always did what a lot of beginning decoders of a foreign language do: I would identify my subject, then jump to the end of the sentence and wee what my verb was, then go back and pick up the rest of the sentence. In essence, I was transforming the sentence into English sentence order as I went along.

This is fine for getting the sense of what's written, but it strikes me that if you stick with this, you never really move into thinking in the other language the way a speaker or reader of it would. Germans, I would assume, are not constantly jumping to the end of the sentence to see what the participle is. They see "hatte" (I had) or "war" (I was) and then they just hang on until they reach the end of the sentence and find out what I was or I had been doing.

Perhaps speed and vocabulary is a good part of what helps here. When I'm reading in English, even a weird sentence order doesn't leave me hanging so long that I get confused or frustrated and go searching for my verb. I'm moving fast enough that I take in all the parts and assemble them into a sensible whole.

So continuing to improve my vocabulary is probably part of what it will take to move from this decoding or translating approach to actual reading, but the other part is to develop some greater flexibility of mind such that I don't find it hard to simply process the sentence in the order that it comes, rather than mentally rearranging it to its "correct" order.


Jen Fitz has a great response post on developing natural reading ability in a foreign language.

Bearing also has a great response post about techniques for addressing alien grammar.

Boy, all this engagement is also like the old days of blogging. I should write about language learning more often!


Bruce McMenomy said...

I think you're quite right. For what it's worth, one can eventually get to that point in Latin or Greek as well. But (though I never liked the memorize-the-dialogue approach one encountered in high school language classes) I think some of the mental fluency you're looking for may be facilitated by the memorization (or at least the internalization) of pattern passages. Some of my grasp of German came from the two years I took in college, but some of it came from listening to Wagner and bits of German poetry over and over again, and reciting them to myself. Once you get those rhythms into your subconscious, they become productive for you.

The goal of the whole operation should be ultimately to get the English out of the middle of the process -- to where Schiff or navis means to you not "ship", but the thing that goes in the water. (Lewis says something about that in his training early in life.)

Darwin said...

"For what it's worth, one can eventually get to that point in Latin or Greek as well."

True. I had very good teachers in Latin and Greek, but I did not sufficiently apply myself to reach that point.