Daniel Jake Eberts (4th-year Winner)

Essay: Language Learning through the Ages

My collection consists of language textbooks, multilingual dictionaries, grammars, and workbooks; in short, any printed material used to aid in foreign language acquisition. I try to acquire books such as to feature as large a number of languages across as broad a period of time as possible. The oldest book by publication date is a republished comprehensive grammar of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, published in 1869 by a Spanish missionary and linguist. The oldest physical book is an advanced grammar of French from 1891, followed by a remarkably intact booklet on Classical Icelandic from 1911. My favorite books are a set of three adorable pocket Dictionnaires from French into English, Italian and German, each no larger than a business card. I unearthed them from a milk crate in a weekend market in Europe one summer.

The impetus for my collection grew from an observation I made during my own pursuit of Mandarin Chinese, a language I reached “fluency” in (a word I am not a fan of, but nevertheless a word that appears on a fancy standardized test certificate of mine) after just under 10 years of study. Mandarin, shockingly, is not an easy thing to master, and for a period I convinced myself that were I to reach a critical mass of Chinese textbooks and the like, their sheer weight would be able to force the entire language into my brain. My meager high school income did not make room for any shiny new n-th edition textbooks with obscene fiduciary online workbook codes, etc.; the book that started my collection was far humbler, coming from second-hand bookstore near the small Chinatown in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. It was from 1991, a short, small book entitled Speak Chinese Today: A Basic Course in the Modern Language by Beverly Hong. (The majority of my collection come from bookstores like that one, or second-hand sales like the Regenstein holds, although occasionally for rarer languages I will allow myself to cheat via Amazon.)

Speak Chinese Today confronted me with the reality—an unpleasant one for a student trying desperately to grasp even the vaguest contours of a foreign tongue—that language is fluid and subject to change, often quite rapidly. Hong wrote the first edition of the book in 1983 after having immigrated to the United States from mainland China, which had just barely begun its historic Reform and Opening Up campaign. China’s vernacular was still heavily influenced by the mores of Maoist doctrine that had been promulgated to the hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens since 1949, which were readily apparent in the book. For instance, Hong informed me that people greet one another most often as 同志 tóngzhì, or ‘comrade,’ a word that I would later learn has long since transformed into a slang term for ‘gay,’ a fact that still amuses me. Later that year, I would go to Taipei on a cultural exchange program (with the little, red Speak Chinese Today dutifully in tow) and pore over the English textbook of my host brother, filled with anachronistic how-do-you-do’s and other rarely-heard clichés that sounded more at home in a Victorian novel than the mouth of a native speaker, or at least one like me.

My collection has thus been acquired with an eye toward my interest in language change, which is why I try to span as long a time period as possible, as well as language teaching pedagogy. Earlier textbooks in most languages are notable for their resemblance to Latin and Greek primers; they are grammar-heavy and work extensively to frontload the student with the language’s intricacies, and then gradually acclimatize the learner through repeated drills and exercises. Rote memorization is key. This contrasts heavily with your given high school Spanish textbook of the 21st century, filled with kitschy skits and conversations designed to engross the student in an engaging (if not slightly off-putting) simulacrum of the real world. How did we get there? What did that change look like?

To answer questions like that, going forward, I would ideally be able to supplement the current ranks of the books I own with others covering the languages from different time periods. This has been relatively easy for Spanish and French, but I am forced to speculate how the teaching of Japanese, for instance, has evolved over the last century for an English speaker—as the “strategic” importance of it spiked during World War II, and again in the 1980s, what happened to the textbooks? I would be absolutely thrilled to use funds from the Brooker Award to help answer such questions.