Friday, September 18, 2009

Learning a Language

I'm not talking about a normal foreign language, although I suppose the same lessons apply.

In the last week, I became familiar with the language of textual criticism. A friend is finishing up her doctoral dissertation on Job, and she needed a proofreader. When she introduced me to her 500-page dissertation, she was throwing around words like obelus and lemma and catena and asterisk (no, it's not what you think it is) and names like Symmachus and Aquila and Theodotion. So, I'm taking notes, writing down what she wants me to check, trying to figure out what ALL these numbers and punctuation marks mean. Oh, and then there's Greek and Hebrew and Latin and Syriac and Aramaic and German and a bunch of other languages in this book. The first day or so, I was just checking format: margins, vertical spacing, indentations, etc. I could handle that.

But then I got into the text and the evaluation of the critical apparatus. I never felt so stupid in my life. I didn't know what was going on. It all seemed so hard. I had to keep looking up information to make sure I was catching the typos and errors. It was pretty overwhelming. But I kept going, immersed in this project I told my friend I'd help with. And slowly it became easier. Slowly I learned which manuscript numbers were associated with which manuscript-groups and what the code-numbers were. Slowly I began to make sense out of all those symbols and jottings which aren't words. Slowly I began to recognize the players, the ones from the second century and the ones in the last couple of centuries. And slowly I began to speed up on the proofreading because I was no longer looking at something so foreign.

Come to think of it, when Gary taught himself Latin, he had the same experience. He plunged into translating a book, and it went slowly and clumsily. But as he continued working, the translating came easier to him. It also seems to fit with the experience of Nathaniel Bowditch (whose story I greatly enjoy) as he taught himself languages.

Come to think of it, my friend Laura is doing this now, as she learns all the details and routines involved in her new outside-the-home job where she has to learn the language of investing.

I guess I really ought to install Rosetta Stone. I've been procrastinating for three weeks. We can't even pretend to immerse ourselves in German (for tiny little bits of each day) as long the computer program sits in the box instead of on the computer's hard drive...


  1. Nathan Fischer9/18/2009 11:54 PM

    Have a German Bible? I find that translations of the Bible are great ways to learn languages. Granted, you won't find some of the more modern stuff in it, but if you know your Bible well enough, then you can "trudge" through with what you know (have memorized) and connect the words to what you already know. Eventually, you just start recognizing the words for what they are. It's a great immersion 'tool'... Maybe not a perfect one (because there will be nuances here and there) - but still really helpful in basically the exact same way you described above.

  2. Did you read Carry On, Mr Bowditch yet? Or maybe Katie just told you about it?

    I do have a German Bible. Or two. Problem is the time to get to it. And the tiny print for my old eyes. And that blasted fancy old script that I can't decipher. Like those Hebrew letters I was looking at this week -- "See, it's this letter, not that letter" while I'm thinkin' they look a whole lot alike to me!

  3. Yes, that is it! I let people in the office know now..."Hey, I know what you are talking about!" I have even seen some connections in things I do at home with the things I do in the office too...and if you have Rosetta Stone for German...get it out! It is so fun and cool! I really need to get going on Spanish. We were at Sears yesterday and they were saying many announcements in Spanish...I want to know everything they are saying, not just words! Rosetta Stone really is a nice gets you thinking in the language!

  4. I have a Chinese learning website. If you are interested, please check it out.

  5. If you are still interested in learning, also check out
    It has some nice features like your own word lists, mouseover explanations, a loop flashcard feature, a text analyzer and a new text every week.