Languages and Optionality

Last week, I completed the Goethe Institut’s A1 German course. (My new year’s resolution is to complete the B1 course this year. Registration for A2 is in a couple of weeks, and the course itself starts in May.)

I had enrolled in the A1 course last year for a number of reasons, including:

  • I enjoy languages
  • Our company has German partners and customers, and it’s useful to know their language
  • I had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder due to extreme social isolation (what else do you expect when you live in Kanchipuram?), and something that would give me social contact every weekend would help
  • and most importantly, everything sounds more badass in German. (Even Disney movies. Exhibit A.)

The A1 course was huge fun. I had stars in my eyes when, towards the end of the course we did the past participle of words. Quick explanation: it’s a shortcut that prevents you from having to learn the past tenses of verbs. Instead of saying “I made”, or “you made”, or “they made”, you say “I have made”, “You have made”, and so on. This doesn’t seem that impressive in English, because the past tense for I, you, he, and they are all “made”, but it’s a significant advantage in German where they’re different but the participle stays the same throughout.

It was also very easy for me. I think this was because of a combination of two things: first, the Goethe Institut has an incredibly structured teaching methodology where you learn both by swotting grammar and vocabulary, and by actual conversation and immersion. Since they’ve been teaching German as a foreign language for years now, they’ve presumably settled on the best schedule to expose a new learner to either grammar or actual conversation or text reading. It worked for me, anyway.

The other thing that made the course easy was that I had spent five years (Class 6 to Class 10) learning Sanskrit in a CBSE school.

Now, back in the 1990s, studying Sanskrit in a CBSE school was anything but an appropriate mix of immersion and grammar. (I don’t know if it’s changed since then.) From Class 6 to Class 8, you did only grammar. It wasn’t until you came to Class 9 that you started reading short stories – up until then, you would read a sentence at a time at best. (This was when you weren’t rote-learning verb conjugations and noun declensions.)

I won’t comment on how useful this was as a method of teaching Sanskrit – I hardly remember any Sanskrit now, but that could easily be because I never stayed in touch with it after the board exams, and not necessarily because it’s a mad pedagogical method. But it was incredibly useful as a way to make me familiar with the rules of language in general.

Remember how I said that in German the verb form changes with person? Let’s stick to the present tense of make for now, and compare English and German.

  • First Person Singular: I make / Ich mache
  • First Person Plural: We make / Wir machen
  • Second Person Singular: You make / Du machst (informal) and Sie machen (formal)
  • Second Person Plural: You make / Ihr macht (informal) and Sie machen (formal)
  • Third Person Singular: He Makes / Er macht
  • Third Person Plural: They make / sie machen
That’s two forms (make and makes) in English, and four forms (mache, machen, machst, macht) in German. If you’re coming from English, it can drive you mad. But if you’ve spent three years mugging up conjugations in Sanskrit (where, just to make things fun, there’s a dual along with the singular and plural – though there’s no difference between formal you and informal you) you already know what a conjugation is, and all you have to do is remember the conjugations. You’ve already climbed the first hurdle of knowing what  a conjugation is.

Incidentally, a month or so ago, a friend who knew I was studying German forwarded me Mark Twain’s epic rant about the language. Twain complains bitterly that German has four cases for declension. He would have gone mad with Sanskrit, which has seven; or with Finnish which apparently has fourteen. Incidentally, he reserves particular ire for the dative case – and he has my sympathies. The dative case is maddening – it seems to be the case where all the special exceptions to the other three cases end up.

But this illustrates my point – that if you’ve been through Sanskrit grammar and managed that, grammar in German is both familiar and trivial. I suspect this may be true for any language in the Indo-European family. So if your learning style is okay with three years of learning grammar by rote, doing Sanskrit the way we did it back in our day (and, for all I know, is the way kids these days are still doing it), you can then learn any other Indo-European language in the future very quickly. Maybe even any other language, though I will have no experience in this until my Tamil lessons kick off later this year. The value of Sanskrit, then, is not in the language itself, but that it opens up options to learn other languages.

Time now for a quick segue.

A week or so ago, this blogpost about how the Millennial generation is obsessed with picking options that open up other options was being tweeted all over my timeline (though I think I saw it via Suze and Ravi first):

…strange anxieties are getting in the way of these ambitions – none more prominently than something called FOMO. It is the “fear of missing out,” and it has been written about by others (including in an article about SXSW last year) as a phenomenon caused by social media.

More and more, particularly among those who have yet to make those big life decisions (whom to marry, what kind of job to commit to, where to live), FOMO and FOBO – the “fear of better options” – are causing these young leaders to stand still rather than act.

Those with the most options in this generation have a tendency to choose the option that keeps the most options open. Wrap your head around that for a second. It’s one of the reasons that management consulting has become so popular among today’s young elites.

(CNN: Global Public Square)

I empathise with that “fear of better options” a little, but I’m also wary about generalising to an entire generation (even if generations are by definition where generalisations apply). Not to mention that the Millennial generation of the USA is not going to match the similar generational cohort in other countries. Though I have to admit, globalisation means that (rich) American Millennials are probably more similar to (rich) people from the same generation in other countries than at any point before. Earlier in history, the similarity would have been in destitution…

But now that Priya Parker has come up with this very interesting concept of optionality, it ties in to the first part of my blogpost: Sanskrit, as I said, is brilliant at opening up other options. But (and of course there’s a but)…

If there is this hankering for optionality, at what point does it actually develop?

I ask this because when I did Sanskrit, there was no choice – from Class 6 to Class 8, you had to do Sanskrit as the third language at my school. Then I came to Class X or XI, and suddenly our school introduced an option for the middle school kids: they could do French or German instead of Sanskrit. Suddenly there were mass desertions – Sanskrit fell down to one or two sections (if that many.)

Now admittedly most people might not have made the connection between learning Sanskrit now and learning French or German much quicker later on. But even if someone had gone around madly pitching Sanskrit as the best language if you wanted to keep your options open to a bunch of middle school kids: would they really have listened?

The obsession with optionality requires a sense of the future. And perhaps I’m doing them a disservice, and the younger generation has that sense of the future – but honestly, I don’t see an eleven year old giving up French now to study Sanskrit so that he (or she) can study both French and German in the future.  I don’t think that’s about impatience, or inability to think ahead: if you’re eleven years old, thinking of a future three years away (or even further) is a quarter of a lifetime.

(UpdateAishwarya pointed out over chat that not only would they not have listened, but this would only have been true for the kids who learned like me and for whom grammar works in the same way. Yes, this would have only worked if you had some magic way of identifying such kids and pitching to them, and I thought my earlier caveat about German being easier if this method of pedagogy worked for you made that implicit, but I should have made it explicit instead. That was sloppy writing on my part.)

Proportionally, that’s like asking a twenty-something to make plans for when he’s thirty five – but then, twenty-somethings do do that – anyone entering a long-gestation career like law or medicine is doing that, and so is somebody who’s setting up a retirement fund.

So at some point between being kids and late-teenagers, we gain a sense of the future. Sometimes this future orientation is thrust upon us (as it would be for most Indian kids who’re pushed kicking and screaming into a predetermined engineering+MBA career). Sometimes, we’re born with it and start off early. And sometimes, we become obsessed with it and end up like the Millennials that Priya Parker describes.

And now seguing back to the paralysis brought about by the hunt for options…

To be honest – I’ve been there. The thing that’s helped the most is to keep reminding myself that some things are best done now when I have the youthfulness to do them well. Really, this is balancing out options with a bucket list or checklist where ticking off items gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. It still doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to – but it’s a start.

7 Responses to “Languages and Optionality”

  1. Yayaati Says:

    They have a German Institute in Kanchipuram! Wow!
    But if I was to find a Sanskrit training institute in a small German town, I’d have no luck. Such it goes.

    Aside: Left of Cool will be missed. If possible, write something here about unusual books.

    • Sumeet Says:

      1. The institute is in Chennai
      2. Learning Sanskrit in a small German town is very much possible because all towns have a Volkshochschule where you can, for a trivial fee, learn almost any skill from knitting to accounting to exotic languages like Sanskrit, Persian or Hindi. Of course the course catalogs vary, and very small towns might have fewer options, but are not unlikely to offer Sanskrit. Capitalism is such a wonderful thing. It provides you with rich options for self-fulfillment besides letting you buy 50 varieties of ketchup.

    • Aadisht Says:

      As Sumeet said, the institute is in Chennai – the link in the post is to the Chennai centre.

      The main reason I stopped doing Left of Cool is that finding a book specifically for weirdness, (re)reading it through, and writing about it is a terrible time sink – so I’d much rather write about other stuff. Sorry!

  2. Sumeet Says:

    I was one of those kids in school who picked German over Sanskrit, and who satisfies your criteria of loving the pedagogy you describe.

    But funnily, picking German turned out to be about optionality for me. I spent many summer months of my youth at the Goethe Institute, going far far beyond what was needed for getting decent grades at school, not just learning the grammar but also almost becoming an obsessive Germanophile, without any sense of how deeply German was going to change my life 10 years later.

    Looking back, those months at MMB were some of the best of my life. Also, coming back to your youthfulness point, I would probably never have become a Germanophile later in life.

    • Aadisht Says:

      Sumeet, someone New Age-y would probably be tempted to use your example to make a blanket statement about how EVERYTHING opens up options and is worth trying.

      Now if we added nuance to that blanket statement, we’d probably find that most things open up some sort of options, but how limited or vast these are depends…

      and doing some things opens up options that are well known, but other things open up options that are not known until you go through with them. That is a risk – but if I am in a financial/ psychological state where I am comfortable with doing something knowing well that it probably will lead to nothing, but that there is a nonzero chance of it leading to something good – why not?

      Tim Harford’s Adapt talks about a similar decision making structure.

      • bobo Says:

        yours was a very easy decision to make. unfortunately the majority of critical life decisions aren’t. Harford is a myopic pro-monetizing bonehead.

  3. Sandeep Says:

    Check out memrise.com . Can help add vocabulary at a really fast pace.


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