On Learning a Language

From W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz:

If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge.

I was reading this morning before class - the book is a long meditation on memory and history and our place as individuals in a world whose relationship to history is tenuous at best. It may have been the fact that I was waiting to go to class - Arabic does not come easily, but it is slowly coming back, and there's a certain satisfaction in learning to read again. There was a time when Arabic used to come, if not easily, then at least a little more fluently. Sitting down to study again this semester has proved to be a humbling experience, words sometimes seeming little more than curves (to take roughly from I think Philip Levine, looping scrolls that began to forget themselves in the moment of their writing) and random dots. Recently - and only recently - though, I've felt that I'm beginning to learn my way through the language once more. And what was previously nothing more than a thin sheet of paper with a tracing of something intangible becomes something thicker, something that catches on the tongue. Of course, nothing happens flawlessly: I found myself reading aloud something I'd written in Arabic. It was the first time I'd read my handwriting out loud in front of other people, and I found my script cramped, narrow, hemmed in. It's a pleasure to watch people fluent in writing Arabic: their script is almost effortless, a kind of leaping cursive, a grace that I have yet to master.

But more than that: Sebald's description struck me as such a beautiful way to talk about Arabic, the way in which the language is pulled two ways at once: the other day we pressed our professor for translations of "post-colonial thought" and "globalization"; and yet the language remains - for me at least - so fundamentally linked to the sacred. One could argue that English has some sacred resonance, that there is a kind of faith in it, but English has nothing on the richness and the thickness of Arabic. The language is at once a language of a faith that first found expression fourteen centuries ago and a language that is - like all languages - growing and changing and, as Sebald put it, building its "suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country".

All of which is to say nothing in particular: only that learning a language is in some way like learning a new place. There is something to learning its gridded streets, its major highways and urban centers; and there is something to be said for those smaller, more private moments, when you're walking alone on a wide empty street rolling a new word over and over on the tongue.


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