Riffin’ in the Infinitive

Learning to speak a new language has many parallels with playing a musical instrument.  When I played the cello, I had to constantly be aware of where I was going.  In fact, reading music, you always have to stay a few measures ahead!Image

When speaking a new language, you have to think: what verb works here?  Should I use the infinitive?  Does that noun need a feminine adjective?  How many people am I talking about anyway?!

Listening and repeating a sound verbatim is also a common element.  When I was studying music, we took a class called eurythmics, wherein we heard a melody or beat pattern and had to repeat it.  Over time, they became much more complex.  We learned how to store the pattern for a short time while we played it back.

For me, a little-recognized benefit of musical study in language learning is the “trading” that goes on in small group music making:  I play this phrase with force, and you answer it with timidity.  I shape the line with a flourish, and you answer with another.

This “trading” also happens in language, as we trade: “Hey, how are ya?” for “Doin’ fine!”  Most everyday language happens without much thought as we trade common phrases among our interlocutors, just as we trade musical phrases among our fellow musicians.


Artful Writing

In the film, Starting Out in the Evening, a writer in his sunset years looks slowly through a box of old photographs, examining each one with great care and feeling.  He puts one down in front of him, rests his head on his hand and gazes out the window.  After a moment or two he pushes back from the table, resets his typewriter, and begins to write.

As a student of art history, I find that looking at works of art fosters my own writing creativity.  Some of the same elements of plot, character development, tone, and mood are present in visual art which are also present in the written word.  Writing about works of art is an ancient practice; in ancient Greek it is known as Ekphrasis.  Many famous writers and artists throughout the centuries have engaged in this practice, and it is alive and well now in art journalism, art history, and even more pragmatic fields such as architecture and city planning.

Take a look at the work of art above (Giorgione’s Tempesta. Photo: shafe.co.uk) and come up with a story about it.  Can you identify character traits in the people?  What happened just before the picture, and what is about to happen?  What is the tone of the picture?  If it had a soundtrack, what would it be?  If this picture were a still from a movie, what would the title of the film be?  These questions can go on and on as you open up your imagination to the work.

Wonder Actively

A freshman English professor makes an unexpected observation in this American Spectator article: none of the students in a remedial writing class knew who Charles Lindbergh was, whereas almost all the honors students did.  Of course, being able to identify the man who made the first solo transatlantic flight is not essential to good writing, but it does show intellectual curiosity.  These honors students are the kind of people who ask questions about the world around them – and seek out answers.  I remember very well a meeting with my thesis advisor at St. Andrews University in which he brought up a tangential issue, to which I responded, “Oh yes, I was wondering about that.”  I will not forget his response: “Next time, wonder actively!”

Knowledge can come from anywhere.  A favorite movie inspires an interest in its setting, which could lead to a trip, and perhaps even a new language.  A passion for cookies can become a science project, and perhaps even a small business.  Personally, my love of Ricky Martin in high school taught me more Spanish than I probably would have learned in a first-year course!

Colleges are looking for intellectual curiosity in future students.  Yale’s admissions department ask themselves, “Who is likely to make the most of Yale’s resources?”  They want students who will follow their curiosity and engage actively with the world around them.  The President of Stanford University urged incoming freshman to emulate Charles Darwin by following their intellectual curiosity wherever it might lead them – despite setbacks.

The greatest setback on a path forged by curiosity is probably the lack of a clear goal.  Students and parents want to know that the work they do will improve grades, SAT scores, and college applications.  Don’t worry!  Following your interests leads to success in these areas because it employs critical thinking, research skills, creativity and communication.  Most importantly, it will lead to a life filled with learning!   After all, what good is a 4.0 grade-point average if you find yourself on the elevator with the president of your dream college, and you don’t know who Charles Lindbergh is?

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