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Different kinds of knowing

Anne Dalke's picture
Yesterday, as I said good-bye to my teacher, I started to cry. I felt a little foolish—this was, after all, from the beginning, a temporary paid arrangement. So what was that all about? Well, we’d been sitting up close in that cubículo for four hours every morning, making conversation—albeit in VERY halting Spanish--about a wide range of topics, from government corruption to learning disabilities, from the history of machismo to word plays on “embarazaso/embarazada” (to be embarrassed/to be pregnant). I was doing there what I most like to do, what makes me feel most alive, most centered, most sure that my life makes some sense/is worth going through with: that is, being engaged with another, learning about how they understand the world, and trying out my perceptions on them in turn.

This language-learning has been a big struggle for me. On the one hand, I’m very very hungry to be able to talk—really talk—to the people I’m meeting. On the other hand, I’m loathe to give up the structure of the rest of what feeds me— reading books, watching movies, writing my reflections in my journal and my blog, to my friends and family, then thinking about and responding to their responses. Not to mention my deep-seated resistance to getting the language by learning its rules. Along with the concomitant notion that the way to learn to speak and understand is to speak and listen, to pick up Spanish the way children learn their native tongue, rather than memorizing its regulations….

I really hit a wall this week w/ the irregular reflective verbs: every sentence—and these were REALLY simple sentences, like “I get up”—means @ least four decisions: which pronoun for the subject? which pronoun for the reflective? which verb for the action? what conjugation goes with the pronoun? (and this is just the tip of the iceberg; I’m still speaking entirely in the present!). IT’S JUST TOO MUCH THINKING.

On the other hand, learning this language has been a delightful impetus to just the sort of thinking I most enjoy: my philosophizing about the varieties of ways different cultures have for making sense of (and making sensible sentences about) the world. Most striking to me, amid all these distinctions, is the awareness that (as Jeff keeps saying) “I can’t win the argument.” I might get a grudging acknowledgement from my teacher that yes, “the best conversations are reflexive,” but she’ll still insist (rightly!) that the verb form is not reflexive in Spanish. However much it might please me to write “nos conversamos” (we talk with ourselves), the correct form is the non-reflective “conversamos.”

I was also reflecting earlier on the interesting differences between the two Spanish forms of “to be”: “ser” (which indicates states that are permanent) and “estar” (which is used for what is temporary). Turns out that there are “similarly different” forms of “to learn”: “saber” (used when you know something abstract or intellectual, like an idea) and “conocer” (when you know something concrete, like a person. The great example my teacher gave me was “Maria conoce á Luis, pero no save dondé vive el--Maria knows Luis, but she doesn’t know how to live w/ him”!) I’ve often told my students that intellectual work means moving back and forth between the concrete and the abstract: making detailed observations, then generalizing from them. So I find it quite handy now to have two words for the two ends of this spectrum….

Two other relevant examples, of different ways of divvying things up. When I asked my teacher for translations of the books I’ve been reading, she used the same phrase, “más allá,” for both Beyond (the Mexique Bay) and Over the Top (Of the World). Again: makes sense: beyond and over the top. Same idea. Same word.

I expect that most travelers quickly notice the different ways that different cultures have of making sense of the world. Seeing these differences gives us a sharp sense of the constructedness of our own ways of dividing up the world, and leads us (or at least it leads me) to question our own logics.

For instance, in Antigua is laid out on a grid, w/ avenues going north/south and streets going east/west. They are both numbered sequentially (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.) and labeled w/ geographical directions (norde, sud, oriente, poinete). East, easy. BUT—all the streets have a second (& third, maybe even a fourth) name, and these are the labels used on the street corners. These secondary/tertiary names refer to the important sites in the area; usually they are the names of a nearby church (there are over 30 churches in Antigua). And—far as we can figure—four streets in the neighborhood might well be called, say, “Santa Lucia.” As you might imagine, this has given us conniption fits, as we have tried to figure out how to negotiate the streets (trying find the p.o. or a restaurant w/ an address that doesn’t correspond either to your map or to the street you’re standing on…) And yet: it makes a lot of sense, yes? Since any street named Santa Lucia is going to lead you to Santa Lucia (okay, okay, this is only handy if it’s the church you’re looking for, but I assume that, @ one point in time, this was the case…!)