Tuesday, May 25, 2010

John 2 -- thoughts on language learning

When studying a new language, I enjoy using İncil as my textbook. I start with John's gospel, since the vivid imagery, and simple, repetitive poetic language make it the easiest of the Biblical books to read, in any language.

This practice began when I was studying French in college. I'd barely passed 2nd year French, and was looking down the barrel of 3rd year classes. SO, I started reading four chapters a day of Bonnes Nouvelles Au'jourdhui that summer, a pace that got me through the entire New Testament in two months. Rinse and repeat. That senior year in college, I also took Biblical Greek. At the end of the year, I fulfilled a long-held dream, and began reading John's gospel in the same language John had written it in.
Joh 1:1 ᾿Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος.
OK, so Greek is a bit further away from my native tongue than French, so I budgeted a year to the task. By averaging 2.54 pages per day, I met my goal. The first time through, I understood perhaps 30% of the words, and guessed at the rest. The second time through, perhaps 40% of the words looked familiar. After 10 years, though, I could read the Greek New Testament comfortably and with great pleasure.

After a few months of studying Italian, I downloaded the NT in that language from the internet, and decanted the text, chapter by chapter, into a Microsoft Word document with a two-inch (10 cm) wide left margin, for scribbling in definitions. I now have a loose-leaf Italian NT, that I've read through twice.

I did not attempt reading İncil until after spending several years studying Turkish. For me, the vocabulary is the hard part, since there are so few cognates between the two languages. There's no substitute for brute-force memorization. It took me a bit over 13 months to read it this last time through, since I'm trying to blog more consistently. But, I am now on my fifth pilgrimage through a familiar book in a fascinating, but challenging, language.[1]

For me, however, John 2 will always remind me of the time I read the New Testament in Esperanto. I was wearing a hard hat that December, working at a sheltered industrial workshop. The regular employees suffered from mental and physical impairments, but rejoiced that they had a place to go, something to do, and someone to pay them for it. I was measuring wire out to specified lengths, cutting it, and crimping on electrical connectors. When I had a specified number of coils in a box, I would move it aside and start on the next box. Normally, counting is an inefficient way of keeping track of where you are. So, you convert the numeric information into some other form. For example, stand the electrodes on their open ends in ranks of five. Number becomes length. A visual check lets you know exactly where you are, and how far you have to go.

And, I read this story in John 2:
Joh 2:12 Bundan sonra İsa, annesi, kardeşleri ve öğrencileri Kefarnahum'a gidip orada birkaç gün kaldılar.
Joh 2:13 Yahudiler'in Fısıh Bayramı yakındı. İsa da Yeruşalim'e gitti.
Joh 2:14 Tapınağın avlusunda sığır, koyun ve güvercin satanları, orada oturmuş para bozanları* gördü.
Joh 2:15 İpten bir kamçı yaparak hepsini koyunlar ve sığırlarla birlikte tapınaktan kovdu, para bozanların paralarını döküp masalarını devirdi.
Let's look at two words:
  • para -- money
  • masa -- table
When Jesus stormed into that marketplace and hurled over the tables, I saw with newly informed eyes, he disrupted data processing systems, the carefully arranged and positioned stacks of coins that made it possible for the moneychangers to work efficiently.

No wonder they wanted to crucify him! He'd broken their system!

[1] The Turkic family of languages ranks fifth in the world, behind Chinese, English, Hindi, and Spanish. At least, in terms of the number of speakers.

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