I remember a friend of mine, an American who lived in Rome, starting to study German. His Italian was impeccable, but for some reason he wanted to go to Berlin to study Russian. So first he needed German. He found an old novel without a cover in a second-hand bookshop and started to work his way through it with an Italian-German dictionary a page at a time, listing words and their translations and committing the lists to memory.
I looked at one list and it contained a variety of improbable items – lens, coal, enticing, spuriously, bobbin.
I said to my friend, why would you need to know a word like ’bobbin’? And he replied with a shrug, languages are pretty big. It doesn’t really matter where you start. You just have to pick a corner and go.
I’m not sure it is a technique I would recommend to my students (although one moral of the story is, when it comes to learning, anything goes – and my friend was an exceptional language-learner: he has lived and worked in Germany ever since, and is married to a Russian, and has three tri-lingual children). But it remains sadly (gloriously?) true that a language is a vast pile of detail organised by imperfect generalisations whose utility is rapidly exhausted. There comes a point for every language learner where progress becomes imperceptible. It really is just one word after another.
It might seem futile, therefore, to dwell for any length of time over any single item, the sort of counter-intuitive Zen exercise for which none of us really have time. But there is, conversely, little point being in too much of a hurry to move on. It is on the whole better to learn one word, or one combinations of words, one phase, one example sentence, well, very well, rather than any number of words haphazardly.
And this is especially true, paradoxically, in an intensive course. It might almost be a useful exercise for many language learners to make a project-type study of a single word over the course of a week: its collocations, its variant forms and spellings, its pronunciation in various parts of the English-speaking world, something of the history of the word, its etymology; to rehearse its synonyms, its antonyms, to know the contexts in which it is appropriate, inappropriate; to write essays about that single word, to give presentations on it. Properly, in other words, to locate it. And to come away from a week of learning not only with a single word, like a pearl-diver emerging from the deep, but with a thoroughly misdirected experience of using the language.
A bit too Zen, perhaps; but then I am writing this during my lunch hour sitting near the foot of a Yoshino cherry tree thinking of the famous words of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who in his old age and already a justly celebrated painter, wrote, in the afterword to his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (an obsessive project in its own way), as follows:
“From the age of six I have had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.”
I do not seriously suggest that students start their study of English with bobbin. Nor that they spend a week turning it in their minds like a poet. But if the idea, at least, slowed them down somewhat, forced them to focus on words in the same way that Hokusai focussed on a single mountain, that might not be the end of the world.