Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Self-Directed Language Learning: Strategies for Reading Primary Sources in Their Original Languages

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Self Directed Language Learning- Caspian Smith
Self Directed Language Learning- Caspian Smith
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Date:August 8, 2014
In recent history, the learning process has been the domain of the education establishment. Because of this, many people are reticent to take charge of their own learning, believing that they need experts to present new subject material to them. Whether a learner chooses an accredited university course or an online workshop, it is natural to seek out a more experienced or knowledgeable person for instruction, but self-directed learning is growing in popularity because of its many benefits. Reconstructionists as a group tend to embrace self-directed learning, in part because their areas of interest are less common ones, making it more difficult to find teachers, but also because they have come from (or into) a strong Western cultural background that supports the individual’s quest for knowledge.  Many reconstructionists teach themselves history, brewing, traditional handicrafts, and folk skills. But when it comes to language learning, they are unsure where to begin.  However, with guidance on how and why to approach self-directed language learning, reconstructionists can gain a valuable skill.

What is a source language, and what is the value of learning one?

A source language is exactly what it sounds like: it is a language in which one or more primary sources are written. Primary sources are extremely valuable to historians and reconstructionists for several reasons. Some of these sources give firsthand accounts and impressions of historical events; others record oral traditions, sagas and skaldic poetry in a written form.  Many textbook authors and historians discuss historical events and make references to (or attempt to interpret) primary sources. These textbooks and later works are called secondary sources.[1]  For example, Beowulf and Heimskringla are primary sources. Beowulf is an example of Anglo-Saxon literature.  Heimskringla is a collection of sagas that reveals information about the society and politics of medieval Norway.  An Anglo-Saxon reconstructionist could read essays or listen to lectures about Beowulf, but these would be secondary sources. Relying solely on secondary sources would be equivalent to reading film reviews without ever viewing the film itself.  No matter how accurate, descriptive and well-trusted the secondary source may be, it is not equivalent to the primary source itself.  [2]

In general, reconstructionists understand this issue and require little persuasion of the value of primary sources. However, one obstacle still remains. Reading a primary source in translation is not equal to reading it in its original language. Textual meaning is open to varying interpretations, and a translator must make interpretive decisions when choosing how to translate vocabulary and how to structure sentences. Important and telling elements of a text may be glossed over or lost by the very act of translating. If moving from secondary sources to primary sources removes one barrier of interpretation that stands between the reconstructionist and the target culture, moving from a translation to the original document removes another barrier. For reconstructionists, the decision to learn a source language usually arises within the context of attempting to reconstruct the target culture. Mastering the original text of Beowulf makes sense within the context of learning Anglo-Saxon culture. Whether a reconstructionist focuses on Old Norse,  Anglo-Saxon or another language, the language learning process can be long and difficult. However, reconstructionists understand that a person who is not prepared to fully participate in one culture is left on the outside of every culture, staring through the window at the riches within. The language and the culture are best learned in tandem, as primary sources are literature rooted in a specific culture.[3]


[1] – http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/robinson-sources.asp
[2] – http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/primarysources.asp
[3] –  E. Christian Kopff, The Devil Knows Latin: Why America needs the classical tradition (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2001) 23-24.