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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Marezydoats in Outer Space

by Don Webb

The Dohani War, chapter 11 appears in this issue.

Suppose you wanted to learn French. What would be the best way to go about it? Go to Montreal or Paris? Hang out and go to parties? No, all you would hear is noise.

To learn a language you need comprehensible input. That is, you need to understand what you hear. And the easiest way to learn is one word, one phrase at a time. And don’t worry about time; you’ll progress fast enough: language learning proceeds not linearly but exponentially.

Unlike Martin Kerharo’s Jane, in The Dohani War, you don’t even have to write. However, experiments in teaching purely oral language have proved an abysmal failure; students take notes compulsively. And the writing systems they invent are even more bizarre than French or, heaven help them, English.

How does Jane learn? She is something of a special case. Dexter and company have no way to teach her a spoken language. Jane can hear, and she can make sounds. But all she does is groan, moan, grumble and growl.

In chapter 6, Dexter finally teaches Jane the spoken words for her name, his own name, and Charts’. But Jane has no patience with the process. The very concept of a spoken language is alien to her and, we suspect, a waste of time as far as she’s concerned. The Dohani seem to communicate by some other means. Rather, Jane finds a way to draw images electronically on a TV screen.

In chapter 11, the language lessons are entirely visual, but Jane learns a human language — be it French, English or some other — by means of a modern technique: Total Physical Response. We see it in action when Charts illustrates the verb “to break” by breaking things. And Jane and the others engage in a lot of gesturing.

Jane is also learning by another modern technique: the Natural Method. It relies heavily on pictures as well as TPR. And its basic concept is that of comprehensible input. With the scientific team’s notepads and extensive collection of images, Jane can learn vocabulary quickly.

But learning words is simple. The hard part is grammar, the means that allows you to use words. Now, you’ll sometimes hear people say they don’t know grammar. Oh yes they do. If they didn’t, they would not be able to say anything coherently. They just don’t know how to talk about grammar, which has its own specialized vocabulary.

Grammar is acquired through another method: storytelling. You hear or see the words you’ve learned in sentences, in coherent contexts. The story may be very simple, for example: “Dohani good. Human bad. Jane loves Dexter.” Proficiency increases with the acquisition of function words and word forms. Jane will eventually learn: “The Dohani are good. Humans are bad. Jane loves Dexter.”

Obviously, the frequent section breaks in chapter 11 signal to the reader that significant time lapses occur in which a lot of language learning takes place. The scenes we see show us the practical results.

And yet some steps have to be skipped over, if only to advance the plot of the novel. For example, Jane has no problem with the concept of “word.” And yet not all human languages agree on what a word is. A word in one language may have its equivalent as a sentence in another language, and vice-versa.

Further, Jane quickly picks up a basic rule of syntax. She has no problem with the fact that the human language she is learning is an SVO (subject-verb-object) language, like French or English. That need not have been the case.

Word order creates an interesting conundrum even in translating from French to English. For example, “Jane loves Dexter” is easy enough in both French and English.

But what happens when Jane wants to add an intensifier to “loves”? She writes: “Jane loves infinite Dexter.” The result is more understandable in French than in English. Here’s why:

On the other hand, it’s probably just as well that Jane communicates visually rather than orally. She might be able to pick out individual spoken words in English, for example: “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” But French does not mark juncture between words. English spoken as though it were French sounds like the old popular song: “Marezydoatsand dozydoatsand little lamzydivy.” See what I mean about learning French before you go hanging out at parties?

One would expect that many or even most of the scientists in the team around Captain Lambert and Lieutenant Dexter are linguists. One of them, at least, seems to be a language teacher skilled in the latest techniques: the Natural Method and Total Physical Response with Storytelling.

Now, back to the TV screen, Jane. Time to read and write stories, and learn syntax and grammar!

Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb

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