Matthew Roy

Operation Trilingual: 22 Week Assessment

It has been 22 weeks since I first began my Operation Trilingual Language Learning System. As outlined in my previous post, I planned on dividing my time between different types of Input and Output to create a perpetuum mobile of linguistic beauty. Now that some time has passed I need to take stock of what has been accomplished and decide whether or not my efforts are pushing me in the direction I want to go.

I recorded my progress on the following chart:


The green column shows the date in weekly groups.
The red section charts German activity and the blue French.
For each day I wrote what type of Activity (Narrative Input, Culling Input, Output), what Material was used (text, audio, flashcard program, etc.), Duration of time spent on that activity, and any special Notes.

That's how it worked; here's how I assess the journey:

  • Accomplishments
    • Daily Incentive: I didn't like having to write N/A and 0hrs for a given day. Kept up my work in both languages daily.
      • Highest weekly total: 16hrs 22mins
      • Lowest weekly total: 1hr 33mins
    • Lots of Narrative Input: By far the easiest Activity, I have made my way through a healthy helping of audio books of C.S. Lewis' Prinz Kaspian (finished) and Der Reise auf der Morgenröte (in progress) in German, reading German translations of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, and reading French, literary fairy tales by the Comtesse d'Aulnoy. Yum!
    • Academic Culling Input: in addition to passing my French language test for UCSB, I had to put in some time to translate foreign documents and articles for my classes and papers. One source included reading a German keyboard treatise from the early 1700s written in a very difficult to read fraktur script.
    • Exciting Output: I got the chance to have a lengthy conversation with a German speaker, exchange friendly emails with a Swiss pianist in German, and send some Facebook messages to a French friend.
    • Free Speak Output Focus: Sometimes it's hard to decide what to yak about. Aaron's Sentence Expansion Drill and Sentence Transformation Drill are excellent to warm up a language's rules and rhythms.
I see these accomplishments as a MAJOR VICTORY given the insanely busy life of the PhD graduate student. It probably wouldn't be an understatement to say that 80% of my Input was done on the bus to or from school and the other 20% in bed while trying to calm down and go to sleep after a busy day.

But the system still requires some revamping:

  • Short on Goals: My way of tracking progress works as a documentation of what I've done, but does not challenge me to meet self-imposed goals. The "do something every day" mandate has been great to keep up the momentum, but now I think it's best to give myself some specific goals I can aim for:
    • Not enough Output: Going forward, I'm going to try to have Output, probably in the form of writing, at least 3 times a week in each language. Perhaps I can make it a running story that I continue to enlarge, or I can rewrite sentences from my Culling Input with verb tense transformation. I'll have to experiment to figure out what works best, but definitely increasing the Output.
    • I need to go to the German restaurant (Brummis) and the French restaurant (Pacific Crêpes) in a few months to keep up the waiter-chatting inspiration.
  • Interesting vs. Useful Materials
    • I've made sure to read or listen to Materials that I enjoy. Thus the great wealth of fairy tales. This has been excellent for my enjoyment, but a little light on the vocabulary that is most helpful in conversation or reading academic documents. Perhaps a little sprinkling of those types would be beneficial. The former may mean more shadowing to podcasts and the latter more Wikipedia articles on composers or musical terminology.
    • (I just got an audio book of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers for Christmas!)


With the new year starting today, I think I'm in a pretty good place as far as my desire to be trilingual. I had wanted to start adding Russian, but I need to wait on that for a while as I take the time to set and meet these goals, especially the Output. Close the loop!

My best to everyone in the coming year on all your linguistic adventures. Keep the fire going!

Upon Watching "The Nose"

I took my wife to the opera last weekend. The Met Live broadcast series was playing Shostakovich's The Nose, and I simply couldn't pass up this unique but admittedly bizarre experience. We prepared ourselves by reading through Gogol's short story and I attempted to lay out the musical expectations of modernist Russia and young, pre-censorship Shostakovich. (Gogol Spoiler Alert: a petty bureaucrat wakes up sans nose, finds it out in society pretending to be of a higher social class, the nose refuses to return to its rightful place, the bureaucrat is distraught at the social injustice of it all, but wakes up a few days later with it returned.)


Nevertheless, we were sorely unprepared for what was in store. There are doubtless many studies and essays that have been written on the piece that might illuminate the work more cogently, but as a Soviet music enthusiast, and a musicologist who's given opera a fair bit of thought, here are a few of the things that stood out:

  1. The piece is challenging from a musical standpoint. It's helpful to remember that this is the era of the poet Mayakovsky who delivered his poems through a bullhorn, screaming. The declamation is utterly violent, perhaps unmusical (especially the sycophantic or schizophrenic laughter ["ha ha ha" "ха ха ха"]), and the instrumental interludes pushed me to the threshold of pain, in their percussive, repetitious crescendos. This is difficult to handle and it's even more difficult to notice variations within the sonic world that would give subtlety to the various characters or moods.
  2. This type of music is not intrinsically bad; it has its place and communicates its message at a visceral level that few musical languages can. (Thank you modernism.) I wonder what this medium does to the subject. Opera as a multilayered amalgam of music, literature, and visual effects is generically messy and polyglossic (the latter in a Bakhtinian sense in which multiple discourses are presented simultaneously). I find Shostakovich's music to be dissonant with Gogol's original story, a tale that I interpret as hinging upon "decorum"; in presenting that decorum, Gogol essentially exposes its ridiculousness and shallowness, but it has to be there in the first place before it can be critiqued. Shostakovich's musical world creates a sense of musical chaos, a world in which decorum is merely a concept ("You should know your proper place") that is completely at odds with the musical mode of expression, ie. atonal screaming. 
  3. Without Gogol's restrained layer of subtle decorum (through which we see the delightful exposure of social folly), the opera feels monolithic and lacking in narrative drive. There is hardly any need for the main character, Kovalyov, to recover his nose. He already inhabits a world of bizarre relations, fragmented personalities, chaos barely held in check by some unseen social mechanism. Nothing essential changes when he recovers his body part. No decorous society (however empty and ridiculous) is resumed.
  4. This seems to be highlighted by the production choices of director, William Ketridge. He sets the scene in modernist, 1920s Russia (rather than in pre-Soviet, Imperial Russia, as Shostakovich envisioned), makes continual use of Monty Python-esque projections and visuals, and has several cast members inexplicably wearing masks worthy of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. If there is an order in this society, back to which an alienated outcast would desire return, it is completely covered up by the madness of visual cacophony. There is no impetus to return, no wholeness anywhere. (It was equally bizarre to have an actor lamenting the loss of his nose while no attempt was made to conceal it via makeup or prop at all.) In an of itself, the visual mastery was entertaining, but I found it to be extremely dissonant with Gogol's tale.
  5. Some musical moments were worth remembering and exploring further: The church scene was haunting and reminded me of the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The mournful oboe music accompanying the futile attempts to reattach the nose (much like Peter Pan's fruitless attempts with his wayward shadow). And the balalaika-accompanied song of the valet, Ivan, which takes its text from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon
I liked it, but would want to study the score a bit more before seeing it again, as that might make clearer the aural relationships within this stage society and open space for musical/social critique. Once again, my wife is a trooper. (Her husband has now made her sit through this AND Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. I'd better take her to some Mozart quick!)


What do you think?

Lost in Translation

Because I find it to be baldly hilarious (it's celebration of monolingual totalitarianism/utopianism notwithstanding), here's a scene from L. Frank Baum's The Marvelous Land of Oz:

Neill

    "I beg your Majesty's pardon," returned the Pumpkinhead; "but I do not understand you."
"What don't you understand?" asked the Scarecrow.
"Why, I don't understand your language. You see, I came from the Country of the Gillikins, so that I am a foreigner."
"Ah, to be sure!" exclaimed the Scarecrow. "I myself speak the language of the Munchkins, which is also the language of the Emerald City. But you, I suppose, speak the language of the Pumpkinheads?"
"Exactly so, your Majesty" replied the other, bowing; "so it will be impossible for us to understand one another."
"That is unfortunate, certainly," said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. "We must have an interpreter."
"What is an interpreter?" asked Jack.
"A person who understands both my language and your own. When I say anything, the interpreter can tell you what I mean; and when you say anything the interpreter can tell me what you mean. For the interpreter can speak both languages as well as understand them."
"That is certainly clever," said Jack, greatly pleased at finding so simple a way out of the difficulty.
So the Scarecrow commanded the Soldier with the Green Whiskers to search among his people until he found one who understood the language of the Gillikins as well as the language of the Emerald City, and to bring that person to him at once.
When the Soldier had departed the Scarecrow said:
"Won't you take a chair while we are waiting?"
"Your Majesty forgets that I cannot understand you," replied the Pumpkinhead. "If you wish me to sit down you must make a sign for me to do so." The Scarecrow came down from his throne and rolled an armchair to a position behind the Pumpkinhead. Then he gave Jack a sudden push that sent him sprawling upon the cushions in so awkward a fashion that he doubled up like a jackknife, and had hard work to untangle himself.
"Did you understand that sign?" asked His Majesty, politely.
"Perfectly," declared Jack, reaching up his arms to turn his head to the front, the pumpkin having twisted around upon the stick that supported it.
...
At this moment the soldier returned leading a young girl by the hand.
...
"Why, it's little Jellia Jamb!" exclaimed the Scarecrow, as the green maiden bowed her pretty head before him. "Do you understand the language of the Gillikins, my dear?"
"Yes, your Majesty," she answered, "for I was born in the North Country."
"Then you shall be our interpreter," said the Scarecrow, "and explain to this Pumpkinhead all that I say, and also explain to me all that he says. Is this arrangement satisfactory?" he asked, turning toward his guest.
"Very satisfactory indeed," was the reply.
"Then ask him, to begin with," resumed the Scarecrow, turning to Jellia, "what brought him to the Emerald City"
But instead of this the girl, who had been staring at Jack, said to him:
"You are certainly a wonderful creature. Who made you?"
"A boy named Tip," answered Jack.
"What does he say?" inquired the Scarecrow. "My ears must have deceived me. What did he say?"
"He says that your Majesty's brains seem to have come loose," replied the girl, demurely.
The Scarecrow moved uneasily upon his throne, and felt of his head with his left hand.
"What a fine thing it is to understand two different languages," he said, with a perplexed sigh. "Ask him, my dear, if he has any objection to being put in jail for insulting the ruler of the Emerald City."
"I didn't insult you!" protested Jack, indignantly.
"Tut—tut!" cautioned the Scarecrow "wait, until Jellia translates my speech. What have we got an interpreter for, if you break out in this rash way?"
"All right, I'll wait," replied the Pumpkinhead, in a surly tone—although his face smiled as genially as ever. "Translate the speech, young woman."
"His Majesty inquires if you are hungry," said Jellia.
"Oh, not at all!" answered Jack, more pleasantly, "for it is impossible for me to eat."
"It's the same way with me," remarked the Scarecrow. "What did he say, Jellia, my dear?"
"He asked if you were aware that one of your eyes is painted larger than the other," said the girl, mischievously.
"Don't you believe her, your Majesty," cried Jack.
"Oh, I don't," answered the Scarecrow, calmly. Then, casting a sharp look at the girl, he asked:
"Are you quite certain you understand the languages of both the Gillikins and the Munchkins?"
"Quite certain, your Majesty," said Jellia Jamb, trying hard not to laugh in the face of royalty.
"Then how is it that I seem to understand them myself?" inquired the Scarecrow.
"Because they are one and the same!" declared the girl, now laughing merrily. "Does not your Majesty know that in all the land of Oz but one language is spoken?"
"Is it indeed so?" cried the Scarecrow, much relieved to hear this; "then I might easily have been my own interpreter!"
Rackham

Jessica points out the high level of Alice in Wonderland nonsense in this dialogue. I am reminded of the classic fairytale meeting between the main protagonist and the "helper", the latter typically speaking mysteriously or in riddles. In this meeting scene the assumption of linguistic difference and the proper, diplomatic way in which it is dealt with plays hide-and-seek with adult absurdity. 

Crying Wolf

Even while school activities have continued to mount (classes starting at Westmont, finals nearing for UCSB summer session) I've continued to ride the sweet, sweet wave of fairy tale criticism that has been become nothing short of a hungry passion. This has been expressed particularly through interaction with the research-collaboration-project blog Subverting Laughter, a truly wonderful chapter-by-chapter exploration of MacDonald's Light Princess from a variety of angles and approaches. I've also been reading Jack Zipes' Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion which is challenging and thought-provoking at every page. I originally picked this one up for it's chapter on George MacDonald, but, now that I'm going through it from the start, it's amazing to consider the broader, cultural ramifications of fairy tales in terms of how they "civilize" people, or teach them to acceptably integrate themselves into society.

Doré's Little Red Riding Hood

One of the themes that has jumped out at my through these activities is the symbolism of the wolf, its uses as a villain, as moral watch-dog, as devil, as splanchnon, and as a symbol for ravenous, devouring hunger. Here are some thought-provokers from this past week:

Zipes, Chapter 2: Setting Standards for Civilization through Fairy Tales: Charles Perrault and his Associates:
  • (Talking about "Red Riding Hood" in its earliest, oral, folk tale manifestation, before Perrault used it for his own cultural purposes.) The brave little peasant girl, who can fend for herself and shows qualities of courage and cleverness... proves that she is mature and strong enough to replace her grandmother. This specific tradition is connected to the general archaic belief about witches and wolves as crucial for self-understanding. Hans Peter Duerr has demonstrated that "in the archaic mentality, the fence, the hedge, which separated the realm of wilderness from that of civilization did not represent limits which were insurpassable. On the contrary, this fence was even torn down at certain times. People who wanted to live within the fence with awareness had to leave this enclosure at least once in their lifetime. They had to have roamed the woods as wolves or 'wild persons'. That is, to put it in more modern terms: they had to have experienced the wildness in themselves, their animal nature. For their 'cultural nature' was only one side of their being, bound by fate to the animallike fylgja, which became visible to those people who went beyond the fence and abandoned themselves to their 'second face'." In facing the werewolf and temporarily abandoning herself to him, the little girl sees the animal side of her self. She crosses the border between civilization and wilderness, goes beyond the dividing line to face death in order to live. Her return home is a more forward as a whole person. She is a wo/man, self-aware, ready to integrate herself in society with awareness.
MacDonald, Photogen and Nyctaris:

  • Watho: There was once a witch who desired to know everything. But the wiser a witch is, the harder she knocks her head against the wall when she comes to it. Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself -- only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel. She was tall and graceful, with a white skin, red hair, and black eyes, which had a red fire in them. She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind onto her back.
Padel, In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self:

  • In darkness we see what we cannot see in light. Darkness is the unknown... Darkness is where we are most likely to encounter gods. And where we meet their prophets... Fundamental to Greek ideas of prophecy, and of the mind, is the idea that knowledge can be found in, and from, darkness... Like the Sirens' song, passion is destructive but illuminating.

And just because it sprang to mind, Mumford and Sons, Whispers in the Dark:
  • You hold your truth so purely,
  • Swerve not through the minds of men
  • This lie is dead

  • This cup of yours tastes holy
  • But a brush with the devil can clear your mind
  • And strengthen your spine

  • Fingers tap into what you were once
  • And I'm worried that I blew my only chance

Van Gogh's Starry Night

The way of talking about the wolf in these contexts reminds me of Ruth Padel's investigation of the splanchnon: as a place of blackness; the embodiment of emotions, hunger, personality; the crossroads between beast and god... I feel like we don't have characters like this anymore... Maybe Gollum, or Severus Snape... There is a contradictory loss of innocence and gain of awareness and strength... And the witch Watho consumed and lost to the wolf within herself... the awakening of hunger and power, but the need to overcome it... Jack Zipes continues to show how fairy tales, from Perrault to Disney, have continued to try to downplay the presence of the wolf, the need to contend with it, favoring instead a wholesale suppression of all that could potentially ruin us and threaten society's stability... Our culture continually downplays psychological therapy, one of the few remaining arenas where we are given room to contend with our inner wolves... Paul Angone in 101 Secrets for Your Twenties points out that those who don't deal with their wolves and grow out of them, tend to grow into them... With Watho-like results?...

And how is music wolf-like? St. Augustine explores music's discomfiting and otherworldly beauty, "a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured forth in joy..." Does/can/should music also be poured forth in the emotion of the wolf? Can music provide a relatively safe place to explore these realms? And what music?

What do you think?

Apples Falling From the Baum

F. Clement - d'Aulnoy's L'oiseau bleu

Amidst TAing an “Enjoyment of Music” summer session at UCSB and preparing to teach “Survey of Western Music” at Westmont beginning next week, I’ve been getting in a little last-minute reading. This summer has been an enthusiastic adventure through a variety of books concerning fairy tales: from Propp’s morphological theorizing and Todorov’s definition of the “fantastic” to bios of George MacDonald to fascinating contes by seventeenth-century, female, French writers like d'Aulnoy and l’Héritier, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s bizarre Der goldene Topf. I recently finished a book entitled Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, a collection of essays by prominent fairytale scholars, which gives a wide swath of perspectives and analytical positions to consider and apply in my own thinking. I’m having fun!

With this exploratory thought-lust in mind, I’ve made some preliminary observations concerning one of our read-out-loud-while-my-amazing-wife-prepares-dinner books: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Since I’m currently diving into a chapter entitled "Inverting and Subverting the World with Hope: The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde and L. Frank Baum" by Jack Zipes, which is sure to give me a lot to think about, I’d better get out my initial perspective out now before anything else happens.

Frank, pensive style


What initially struck me was Baum's introduction, a short one-page disclaimer in which he advocates for fairy tale modernization (particularly doing away with old European motifs, characters, and gruesome scenes) and aims at creating stories of pure, juvenile entertainment (Dorothy's innocence is a constant theme throughout the book). This strikes me a a pretty gutsy and bravura move and it brings a lot of questions to mind:

1. Does Baum succeed in divorcing himself from European tradition? His narrative structure seems particularly Proppian; his characters, though packaged differently, function much like those from a stock fairy tale; and the amount of gruesomeness tends to rival that found in some Grimm stories, for instance Dorothy viewing a decomposing corpse upon entry to the Land of Oz, as well as frequent and well-nigh habitual decapitation and dismemberment by the Tin Woodman's axe. Even as I write this, however, I wonder if there is a symbolic gesture involved in the violence. What if the Wicked Witches of the East and West somehow stand in for European tradition itself, something that Dorothy's purity must somehow (effectively yet simultaneously innocently) eradicate, both by the fall of the house (building something new over old foundations?) and through the cleansing power of water...

2. What about the dialectic between childish entertainment and moralizing symbolism? Baum's self-conscious story advocates for the former, but his pugnacious introduction, seemingly directed at adult purchasers/readers complicates matters. It makes me critical of the fantastic elements in the story as I attempt to understand their potential purpose and position. It seems like the fantasy can act in at least three ways:
     A. As pure childish fancy: primary colors, glittering objects (so much you have to wear protective eye-wear), wondrous exoticisms, delicious fruits, soft sheets... in effect anything that gives a sense of delightfulness and potency as wonder-inducing symbols for youth. Seen in this light, it would seem that Baum's choices are nearly random. Does it matter that the Munchkins like blue and the Winkies like yellow? Why a Stork? Why Wolves and Bees? Why this appearance of symbolism, of potential? Why does unmasking the power structure (the Wizard as a humbug) accomplish so little in the paradigm of the story?
     B. As cultural critique: I read somewhere that Baum may have had a "yellow-brick road = money power structures" vendetta. Maybe also an American/democratic, anti-monarchical message? But in the end, despite the Wizard's banishment, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all become monarchs... I don't have any biographical knowledge that could enrich this idea as of yet, plus ideological application is so tricky.
     C. As a tongue-in-cheek, adult-directed message: the brainless Scarecrow a great thinker, the heartless Tin Woodman constantly crying and sighing, the frightened Lion facing death to protect his friends. Where is Propp's Lack? Where is the real problem that must be fixed? Also, the use of "magic" seems extremely complicated: sometimes mere smoke-and-mirrors; sometimes, genuinely borrowed from Europe (Dorothy's silver slippers and petit Poucet's seven-league boots); and sometimes so random as to appear ridiculous (the Good Witch of the North balancing her pointed hat on her nose and counting to three, as it turns into a writing tablet)... Does magic exist here or not? Is it powerful or not? Does it matter? Who makes things happen? Who has power?

3. Lastly, why has it become such a powerful American cultural symbol? The MGM movie, The Wiz musical, Wicked the book and the musical? Does it contain something potent after all it's deconstruction?

W.W. Denslow

What do you think? What pops out at you when you experience this story? What do you like, dislike, not understand? Why did they change the color of her slippers in the movie!?!?

Back to Top