The written word: Part 1

Some types of information, such as facts, global concepts, neat ideas, I can pick up out of texts in English, Norwegian, Dutch or German with ease. However, texts that contain not just concepts, but also lots of detailed rules such as the mathematical basis underpinning the theory of tri-axial stresses in solid engineering materials, leave me confused. I don’t know what to do with the information I have just read, and at university could never relate the theory we received in lectures with the corresponding tutorial questions. They seemed completely unrelated to each other.

The problem is that rules and detail seem to be handled by one part of my brain, whilst language, both spoke and written by a completely different and unrelated part of my brain. [Aside: Actually the written language I create is a written record of my spoken language. For example, I can only place commas in sentences (irrespective of which language I am using) by speaking the text in my head and seeing where the pauses should be.]

This leaves me with a big problem whilst learning a new language. Almost all language courses focus on learning grammar as theory and detail, rules and regulations. I picked up most of the Dutch I have learned by learning to speak the language. The two sets of evening classes I took at the Volksuniversiteit whilst living in Utrecht, taught me grammar the traditional way, which went into the rules and detail side of my brain whilst the communication side of my brain continued to forage for the rules of Dutch grammar in the conversations taking place around me.

It has taken me this long to work out that my brain functions like this. I started considering the problem when I realised that I could bat through ten grammatical exercises on our web based Norwegian course, getting scores of 90-100% on the first go at the excercise, whilst still not be able to make any use these rules. Although I can talk reasonably fluently to people I know, I can still stop dead whilst trying to create spoken Norwegian in other situations.

Curiously, my written Norwegian seems to be quite good, especially when I get inspired to write in Norwegian. I can use the high level sentence structures quite effectively whilst continuing to make a plethora of minor grammatical errors. This has something to do with the fact that Norwegian sentences are quite similar to English ones. Dutch sentence structure is closer to German than either English or Norwegian. I never did get the hang of the Dutch and German grammatical rules that piled verbs up at the ends of sentences. That took the fun out of using those languages and made it a chore to construct complex (conditional) sentences.

So I guess I’ll just have to carry on doing those ‘pointless’ grammar exercises, aware that they won’t really help me use the language. I’ll carry on trying to write Norwegian, keep reading books in Norwegian and the Hallingdølen

My full mastery of the Norwegian language will come, given time, as my subconcious grazes on the grammar hidden away in the everyday conversations around me.