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10:21 a.m. - 2012-03-16
bizarre passions
Better than cheesecake, better than sex, better than a runner's high, better than a symphony, maybe even better than everything? What makes you happiest in all the world?

I have sort of a weird passion. I am trying to explain it this way because most people, if you tell them you spend three or four hours a day (at least) studying foreign languages, will think that you're crazy -- and that memorizing verbs and replaying videos that sound like gibberish is something that no one would really WANT to do.

But it is something I want to do -- all day, every day, if I could, the way some people want sex or chocolate. I have loved languages since elementary school, when I first started trying to teach myself French and Spanish. Not much luck there, but when I did get to take a spattering of French in middle/high school.

College was when I really discovered languages. I discovered I could write and think in French and I got to skip ahead in the usual progression of classes because I learned so fast.

I also started taking Russian because I walked into the wrong classroom and accidentally got a mini-lesson in Russian grammar. The professor was writing "Rasputin killed the old lady with an axe" on the blackboard in Russian, over and over with a different word order each time, and explaining to the class that no matter what order you write the words in -- "old lady killed with axe Rasputin," for example -- the sentence still says the same thing. Russian, like Latin, declines -- that is, it's not the word order but the ending of the word that tells you whether it's subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.

I was facinated, and I imagined that Russian poetry must be more beautiful than an english speaker could ever imagine, with the freedom of a language in which the word order doesn't really matter, and there is sort of a natural poetry in the way the words morph and evolve to convey their various meanings ... I was a couple of weeks behind the other students when I decided then and there take Russian; I think I learned the cyrillic alphabet in 24 horus.

(I shut myself in the windowless room on the first floor Stone-Davis at Wellesley, which is rumored to a) have been Hilary Clinton's room when she was a student there, and b) be haunted by the ghosts of students who have committed suicide there. It was a good place to study because without any outdoor light, time ceased to exist ...)

I never should have let that dream of speaking a half-dozen languages fluently because it never let go of me. Every language is a whole new world and every damned irregular verb is a tiny piece of my ticket to that world. I don't see them as something I "have to" memorize; it's more like each word is being given to me, or my gift to myself.

I was right about the Russian poetry, you know -- it is far more beautiful than anything that could be written in English.

I am crazy and happy with my verbs ... better than cheesecake, better than just about anything, and definitely better than marriage, I think.




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