Where it gets hard, of course, is in any move beyond the pragmatic. Last spring, the Working Group on Emergence @ Bryn Mawr explored the question of why irregular verbs, in all languages, tend to be the most commonly used ones. This question, which not so long ago interested me on an abstract level, has taken on a strikingly concrete application in the course of my first week’s language study, where learning a few mas importantes verbosos irregulares has taken precedent over the memorizing of dozens and dozens of regular ones….
But I’ve also found that grammar instruction offers surprising entrances into deeper questions. For instance, in Spanish (as all beginning learners come to know quite quickly), there are two forms of “to be”: “estar” y “ser.” The first indicates a temporary state, the second a permanent one. This distinction has some marvelous ramifications. For instance, when applied to the adjective “listo” (to be ready), “Elle es lista” means “she is ready” (as in, the student is prepared for her lesson). But “Ella está lista” means she is permanently prepared, as in “she is clever; she is intelligent.” Do you see where this distinction might take us? To a meditation on what constitutes intelligence: a permanent state of “readiness”?