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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]


Heritage Lecture, October 2000

Rodney Swenson

It is with considerable pleasure and satisfaction that I am able to welcome you to this year's Heritage Lecture as a part of the 2000 Homecoming festivities. Past Fulbright recipients here today have many common interests that have been the motivating factor in your coming here this weekend, for you have had the experience of studying/teaching/conducting research abroad. Perhaps some in the audience have a desire to do so at some point in the future, and I would encourage you to give it serious consideration. I will direct my remarks initially to those who have been abroad, and more specifically, those who have had the opportunity to participate in the Fulbright program, and have applied through PLU to achieve this honor. So far there are fifty-one winners and six alternates from this university who have had that distinction, and I congratulate all of you on your individual achievements. Today's event is especially significant, for our first Fulbright winner, Ann Mehlem, who spent a year in Norway in 1975-76 studying Norwegian economic developments, is able to be here. Welcome, Ann, and thanks for coming!

Looking back in preparation for the unforgettable experience of an exciting year in another culture with a different language, you will remember the long arduous task of writing two essays for the application. In retrospect it might not have seemed so difficult, but at the time, it was a combination of occasional frustration, seemingly endless revisions and yet one more appointment. Well, it can be done, and you did it, which proves that you were able to compete with candidates from many larger research-oriented institutions. I also want you to know that I am very nervous speaking before you today, for I was often critical of what you had written in your applications, but now the reverse is true, and you have the opportunity of listening critically to that which I have written.

Each September I send an announcement to all faculty members announcing the forthcoming deadline for the current year's competition. I usually include a quotation from the late Senator William J. Fulbright, after whom the program is named: "I encourage you to discover the special world of international education exchange. I hope that one day you too will be among those who say, 'I went abroad to study, and it changed my life.'" I suspect that it is a fair assumption on my part to suggest that in some way this opportunity has had a similar impact on your life, and possibly on your career choice. It was while living and studying in Germany when I decided that a career in academe teaching German with all the variously related ramifications was to be the path that my life was to take. it became a career choice that I have never regretted.

A short time ago I read in our local newspaper an article in which the anthropologist Mary Bateson indicated that there are generally two vastly differing paths that one's life can follow, and I would suggest that one of these two options might fit into the lives of each of us here. The first possibility goes like this: "Everything that I have ever done has been heading me to where I am today." The second possibility goes like this: "It's only after many surprises and choices, interruptions and disappointments that I have arrived somewhere I could have never anticipated." To believe in the first option hardly seems realistic, yet the second option would indicate that much of life is simply left to chance. Was it part of some grandiose plan that you came to PLU, and that you elected to come into my office to pick up an application to apply for a Fulbright scholarship, or was it a mater of chance? Did your choice of topic for your application fall from the sky or did it evolve into something that initially you could hardly have imagined? How was your application accepted among those from many other well-qualified applicants? As young children many of us have wondered about such concerns as, "Why am I here; how did I get here; what makes me the individual that I am; where is my life taking me?" That my parents happened to meet, and my grandparents, and every generation before them, is essentially chance, or if you will a mater of fate.

To pursue the matter of chance a little further, I would like to examine briefly the phenomenon of language. When you began your involvement in foreign language learning, most of you could not have ever dreamed that it would ultimately lead to an extended period of living and studying abroad. Almost every one of you had to have your language ability verified as part of the application process. Even after many years of language study and a successful completion of the language evaluation portion of the application, you probably had some initial problems in understanding and communicating in the language of the country in which you intended to study. That is really not too surprising, for in the language classroom we cannot replicate every possible situation that one is likely to encounter while in another country, nor can we considering all the dialect variations, including differences in vocabulary. Currently we provide instruction only three hours per week in the language classroom, and when in another country, one is surrounded by the language twenty-four hours every day. To expect to be able to communicate in another language in a sophisticated fashion after even two or three years of instruction would fall into the category of what I call "unrealistic expectations." I often hear the student question, "If I take two years of language study, will I be able to understand everything when I get there?" That, too, is an example of "unrealistic expectations." When we examine the importance of language acquisition in other countries, we will soon discover that it usually is the highest priority, and in my course English for Non-Natives, I often will see students who have had eight or nine or even ten years of English instruction. We tend to compliment the person who plays an instrument well or who performs well in a athletic competition, but frequently fail to realize that it has taken that individual many years of concentrated practice in order to arrive at that point of accomplishment. Language learning is also a skill, and a comparable amount of time is required to reach an advanced level of achievement.

Of all the parts of speech, I find that most people have some degree of difficulty with the adverb. What is it? Where does it belong? How can I use it correctly? Why should I bother? It is so elusive and so tricky. Which would you say in response to the usual greeting? "How are you?" I feel good? Or I feel well? Does one do good (or well) on examination? Think of the verb. We can know from hearing or seeing an English verb the following elements, determined from the following number of choices: the verb has number (two choices), and the verb has person (three choices), the verb has tense (six choices), the verb has voice (two choices), and the verb has mood (three choices). From a mathematical point o view, we can easily observe that the number of options in selection the proper form of the verb is almost infinite. Is it any wonder that even native speakers have so much difficulty with their own language? As adolescents, or if you have adolescents in your home, many of you have probably asked or heard this question, "How do I look?" It is possible that it might take an hour to make one's hair just right. A closely related question that rarely, if ever, arises goes like this, "How do I sound?" We will often compliment another person on personal appearance, but rarely on good control of language. How we look and how we sound are equally important.

Another technique that can be useful in improving one's spoken and written language is to remove certain words from one's vocabulary. On the computer we have the delete key; regrettably something comparable to that is no part of our anatomy. We actually can express ourselves reasonably well without lay, lie, so, or like. A knowledge of the parts of speech, what they are and how they function, will be of assistance here, for so is an adverb and not a conjunction, and therefore must not be used like one. Like is a verb, a noun and also a preposition, and therefore cannot be used as a conjunction. The term to use here to describe this phenomenon is circumlocution, which means to talk around a word, for if we cannot use it correctly or do not know or understand a certain word, we must somehow get around it. An axiom of language learning is that the shorter the word, the more difficult it is, and it is also ironic, but we will also need it more. A brief perusal of the dictionary will reveal that the shortest words have the most meanings; consider the number of meanings of watch, set, or run. In some cases, the list of definitions may fill an entire column, or even a whole page. Also, related to the circumstance of frequency is the irony that involves their irregularity, for the verbs we need the most are always irregular. We use the suffix -ize to create new verbs, such as computerize or privatize, and they are always regular.

One of the most difficult aspects of learning English is the spelling system. Pronunciation has changed over the centuries, but alas, much of the spelling system has not kept up with the changes. Since English is so receptive to accepting foreign words, we will often spell those words in the same manner as in the language from which they were borrowed, for example, tsunami, safari, Kindergarten, sputnik, negligee. Historically, English his a Germanic language, but through two notable events in history, namely the Roman and Norman invasions of England, many words of Latin origin were brought into the language, and today Latin makes up about 60% of our vocabulary. Do not let anyone tell you that Latin is a irrelevant! It is possible provide some general tips on spelling, but for the most part, each word must be learned individually. Often the tips on spelling have more exceptions that instances of occurrence. Here is an example that will thoroughly obfuscate your sense of spelling rules: if a word ends in a consonant, and if it has two or more syllables, and if the accent falls on the final syllable, then the final consonant must be doubled when we supply a suffix, such as [forget-forgetting; (doubled t); occur-occurrence; (doubled r); prefer-preferred (double r), but preference (not doubled r)].

Well, language learning is a complicated process. It is so important and so frequently left to chance. When I hear someone speak well, either in English or in German, which are the languages I teach, my first comment is, "You must have had good instruction." We can understand language with atrocious grammar, such as, "He don't got no money nowheres," but we cannot understand if either the pronunciation or the accent is slightly off. Think of the very fine nuances in sound of the following words and how difficult it can be for a non-native speaker of English to distinguish them: (pin, pen, pan, pun, pine). Often we will not understand an entire sentence if just one word is mispronounced.

In a recent issue of Harvard Educational Review dedicated to language acquisition, we can examine more closely the phenomenon to which I am referring. All languages have three elements in common: each has a sound system, each has a structure system, and each has a vocabulary system. Not every language has a writing system. In English we have forty-four sounds, but only twenty-six letters to record them, and therefore, many letters will represent more than one sound, for example the letter (a)- there are many different sounds that contain that letter, like father, can, make, law, etc. Sometimes we need two letters to make one sound, as [th] in [the, thin]; my two examples of the [th] are different in [the, thin]. In [the] it is voiced and [thin] it is unvoiced. The difference between voiced and unvoiced might be described as with and without vibration. All sound is produced by some kind of vibration; for example, when one plays the trumpet, the lips vibrate, when one plays the clarinet, the reed vibrates, when one plays the violin, the strings vibrate, and when one speaks or sings, the vocal cords vibrate. Sometimes one letter can give us two sounds, as in [x] [box]. Did you know there are fourteen spellings to the sound [sh], as in shoe, nation, noxious, mission, mansion, sure, ocean, fuchsia, etc. There is no limit to the number of different sounds we can produce, but there is a practical limit to the number of sounds that we can hear and discriminate. When a child enters school, typically at age six, s/he can produce all the sounds of the mother tongue.

The second element refers to structure, or to use a more distasteful term, the grammar system. As a teenager it would have been impossible to admit to one's peers that grammar is the favorite course; it simply would not have been cool. It is also a mystery of language, but we have so many structure forms available, but we use so few. I often wonder how many of my students can control the past perfect tense, or if they know the different moods of a verb, or if they know the difference between active and passive voice. In spoken English we generally use only two tenses-present and past, and somehow we seem to communicate the matter of time quite adequately. We also have a convenient system of expressing future events with present tense, "I'm gonna do this next week." Now comes the frightening part: when a child is about ten or possibly eleven years old, the grammar system is established, and the books are closed on it! In other words, if a person cannot control lay, lie, so, or like at that age, s/he probably never will. There are exceptions, of course, but in general that is the typical pattern. As educators, we are often faced with the challenge of attempting to change language patterns that are unchangeable.

The last element that I would mention is that of vocabulary, and here again, there is so much more available than we can ever use. The most common twenty-five words, all of which are one-syllable words, will occupy about one-third of all that we read. In case you were wondering what they are, I will tell you-the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I, at, be, this, have, from. The first hundred words on the frequency list will make up about half of what we encounter in written material. If we know the basic 800 words of a language, we will understand about 80% of that which we hear, technical words excepted, of course. When we consider that the standard Webster dictionary contains about 500,000 words, we must wonder why so many exist when we need so few. All of this would suggest that language, too, does not evolve in a programmed, systematic fashion, but in a whimsical chance-like fashion. The foregoing comments apply to a similar degree to any language. Even the so-called "primitive" languages are often incredibly complex.

The next hypothesis that I would like to explore, and it will sound truistic, is the concept of culture. Any language text or language methodology text will state unequivocally that language is the key to understanding any given culture, and it is therefore essential that one have some fundamental knowledge of the language before making judgmental observations about the culture. Without that fundamental knowledge one is likely to make innocuous comments like "strange, different, quaint or even cute." No living language exists in a museum, but in an environment that is constantly undergoing evolution. In the language teaching/learning milieu, the word culture is written with a lower case [c] and an upper case [C]; the former refers to those cultural behaviors that are generally acquired through growing up or living for an extended period of time in a particular culture, such as manners, eating, recreation, family relationships, etc. The other culture refers to knowledge gained primarily through academic study, such as literature, music, creative and fine art, etc. Howard Nostrand, retired professor of Romance Languages at the University of Washington, described culture as follows; "A sociocultural system, and any of its variant lifestyles, is a whole whose parts color one another. This is why a value, a custom, or a word has no one-to-one correspondence in another culture. It is why the cross-cultural contrasting of discrete elements leaves the student with his private belief that only his view really makes sense-uless h learns to feel the 'fittingness' of the detail as perceived by the bearer of the other culture." In one text I noted the statement that language is considered the repository of culture, which would readily indicate the difficulty one would encounter when trying to separate the two. Carlo Goldoni stated the foregoing concept succinctly, "He who never leaves his country is full of prejudices."

A good illustration of the dilemma, or 'fittingness,' to which I just alluded, concerning the difficult in attempting a word-for-word translation is the German word gemutlich; different dictionaries will proved varying translations, such as comfortable, with atmosphere, cozy, good-natured, easy-going, friendly, friendly, informal, or pleasant. We will readily observe that the foregoing words are not necessarily synonyms; all of them are close, but none of them really defines the word accurately. Consider the concept of porch; another word that defies a simple, neat translation. It has a unique meaning in our culture, and does not lend itself to an exact counterpart in another language. Porch is still an important part of home construction today, although considerably less than in former times, but until very recent times, it was an essential part of most houses. There is also the "tour guide" approach to culture, which amounts to little more than the identification of castles, churches, monuments, cities, and rivers. That view of culture tends to become a blur after a minimum exposure to even a few places. Your concept of culture has undergone a transformation of unbelievable proportions during an extended period of residence in the country of your choice, for in addition to the kinds of culture that I have just mentioned, you have also learned the culture of the foreign university, or in the case of those who had a teaching assistantship, you have learned the culture of the public school system. In both cases you have learned about the attitude towards learning, ableit at a different level, which you might describe as similar but different. You have also learned how to laugh in another culture. It is paradox, but the last thing we learn in another language is why people laugh. Laughter is unique to the human species, and so much humor is based on words with double meanings; ostensibly if we do not know both meanings, we will miss the opportunity to laugh. Much humor is based on political personalities and events, and if we are not familiar with either of them, we cannot join in the laughter. I have heard the comment so often by returning Fulbright students, "I really wish I could have stayed abroad longer, as I was just beginning to feel linguistically at home and to understand the culture better."

An ancillary benefit that has accrued during your period of study/teaching/research abroad is the element of broadening your horizons, not only from the academic perspective, but also from the civic and personal point of view. We live in a participatory democracy, and citizens who live in that form of government cannot be better than the education they receive. Education has often been referred to as the groundwork for democracy or the apprenticeship for liberty. You chose to come to PLU to gain an education that would hopefully prepare you for the amorphous "world out there," and of course we hope that we have been able to live up to that expectation, even though the reward structure between the educated classes and the professional sports is egregiously hypocritical. In the overall picture, the central thrust of the Fulbright program is an investment in peace, and you have become a part of that investment. How fortunate you are to have lived in another culture with differing values, traditions, culture, educational system, views of the environment, and history! On the individual side, and it is possible that you were even unaware of it at the time, and yet I don want to sound simplistic or na´ve, but you have experienced an incredible journey of self-discovery. I would venture to guess that your family and friends would also corroborate that observation.

I should now like to turn my thoughts and observations to those in the audience who are seriously contemplating their participation in a comparable adventure. To that end, I have invited members of this year's application class to be present today. My admonition is simple: go for it, because if you do not make an attempt, your chances of success are considerably reduced. You have already heard my reasons why it is so essential to broaden your horizons as a means of expanding your intellectual prowess, of reducing personal provincialism and of becoming a world citizen. At the conclusion of my presentation, I invite you to hear what the panel members, all of whom are former Fulbrighters, will have to say concerning their most memorable experiences as individual ambassadors. It is quite likely that none of us will be able to save the world, but individually, and on a small scale, we can make a contribution.

For many years I have been an avid collector of quotations, and my closing thought represents on of my favorites; it is also on whose author I have been unable to locate in all the dictionaries of quotations in the library. It goes like this: "The work entrusted to me may change many lives for the better." Thank you so much for your kind attention.

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