Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Making Myself Understood

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Making Myself Understood

Article excerpt

I had to study French in high school, and I did not do well at it. I knew I eventually wanted a PhD and was told that studying foreign languages was required, but I didn't understand why.

I began to realize that other languages might be useful, sometimes unexpectedly, when as a college undergraduate I audited a course in the Old Testament. One day I asked the professor what was his particular area of scholarship.

"Assyrian literature," he replied.

I didn't know then that there was even enough Assyrian literature to work with. But my next question was, "How on earth do you learn Assyrian?"

"First, you get very good at German," he replied. "The textbook is in German."

It was my first realization of the complexity of scholarly work. My grad school insisted only that I be able to read mathematics texts in French and German, but my father insisted I learn to speak the languages as well. I have needed to read and speak both, for my research. I've even lectured in French, although not in German.

In 1986 I was invited to lecture in Shanghai, China, in English. I knew the students would read English better than they understood spoken English, so I wrote out the big words on transparencies. (PowerPoint had yet to appear.) My hosts produced a dusty but functional projector, but to aim it at the only blank wall in the room I'd need an extension cord. I could not make my request understood to them.

The students filed in. In desperation, drawing on some unknown instinct, I turned to the class and asked, "Haben Sie ein Verlangerungsschnur?" I'm not at all sure I had the German correct, but a student jumped up and brought me an extension cord. (He'd learned from previous visiting professors - all of whom had been East German.)

I've continued to encounter surprises of that sort. Recently, I spoke with a fellow professor whose research involves looking at art from ancient Syria. …

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