Poetry as a tool in the study/maintenance of languages

Rain gently blueberrying bracketed blossoms

           Moon-scented swirls of entropical rage

                         Pale shades of blue on a clean slab of yellow

Shreds of beheaded banana in cage


I find it impossible to learn another language without playing with its chunks.  The little poem above was one of my linguistic experiments with English.  At the time, I thought I was just throwing new vocabulary words together into a rhythm of my liking.  But the words I chose, and especially the way I combined them, channeled my mood at the time.   So, the sum of the parts was lesser than the whole.

I had a great time during this mad dash across language barriers.  Linguistically, I was in limbo – not fluent in English yet, no more current with my native tongue, patches of Greek and Latin poking me at most importune moments, German grammar raising its ugly head…  The fun ended abruptly, when one of my professors wrote me a note, saying that I write “exceedingly well.”  A comment like this makes you self-conscious and eager to fit in.  It’s like someone telling you that you are pretty – oh the loss of freedom that comes with such compliments. 

That’s why I loved the advanced Latin prose composition, where we had to translate a letter from Mao Tse-tung to his minister of culture into an epistolary Latin of our choice.  Cut-and-paste, cut-and-paste.  Language chunks are anonymous and lifeless until you adopt them.  I loved that class.

I carefully observe what native speakers do with English.  They adopt chunks too.  Cut-and-paste, cut-and-paste.  Rearrange and recombine.  And go on to the next.  It’s a great way to keep your talk current.  By the way, because I don’t have the opportunity to practice Bulgarian – except when I talk to my mom and her other offspring (and his family) – my Bulgarian is now officially ancient.


8 thoughts on “Poetry as a tool in the study/maintenance of languages

  1. Chunks are important, even in my limited language-acquisition experience (meeting an Italian ex-boyfriend’s family). And one of the only things I miss about graduate school is this silly game : a long-abandoned blackboard, freestanding and left in the hall, was a place where students would anonymously post Latin translations of pop songs, usually involving chunks of Catullus’ language. If you figured it out, you had to put a new one up. Now that was some good Latin comp!

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