Language is an Iceberg

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.
Ernest Hemingway

When you enjoy mainly learning language through passive means, like books and radio, the iceberg analogy can be a great motivator. When Hemingway was talking about the “dignity” of the iceberg, he was talking about writing fiction, and specifically about writing short stories. Hemingway, famous for his pithy writing, believed in writing as sparsely as possible, whilst still being very aware of the complete background of the story and characters in excrutiating detail. The brevity combined with the sense that the author knows what he or she is doing creates a gracefulness that is difficult to capture in fiction.

How does this apply to language learning? Well, the amount of outward expression we use in language is tiny (the tip of the iceberg) compared with all of our deeper knowledge and understanding (the enormous part under the water). Everyone, even in their native language, understands far more than they can say. I can’t write like Charles Dickens, but I can read and understand him. I can’t talk like Quentin Tarantino’s character’s but I still follow along damn well. The same goes for the languages you acquire as an adult– massive amounts of reading and listening (reading will expose you to more vocabulary, while listening will expose you to more everyday phrases) every single day will result in massive understanding. But a side-effect of this is that your ability to speak will be stunted.

I think that this scares people away from effective and fulfilling ways to learn language. When people (at least in the Anglophone world) ask about your linguistic history, they say “What languages do you speak?” What kind of question is that? Language is a complicated thing, and the question seems silly to me, now that I have a lot of experience learning languages. A lot of people, however, don’t think that knowledge in language is worth much if you can’t speak. So, early on, people want to grab as many formulaic phrases as they can, just to prove that they can talk. Their comprehension lags behind, but they sound good, so isn’t that good enough?

It might be for some people, but I enjoy learning languages for something a little deeper than that. If I’m going to be top-heavy in one direction or another, I’d rather have massive comprehension with speaking and writing abilities that trail behind. That way, even without opportunities to talk to native speakers, I can enjoy my languages through books and other media, and it’s hella satisfying.

What’s more, massive input can create output (speaking and writing) without much trouble, as long as you’re patient. That’s a discussionfor another time, but we need to remember that language acquisition, as long as materials are plentiful, is really a matter of time and hours put in. All parts of language are connected, so if you prefer to read and watch movies over finding conversation partners, your ability to speak will still develop quite naturally.

We should be asking “What languages do you know?” or “What languages do you understand?” Or better yet, if we’re really nosy, just probe further and ask about speaking, understanding, reading, and writing abilities 😀 It gives a much clearer picture without all the trouble. If you think of language as an iceberg, with outward abilities like speaking at the top, and all of your comprehension and internalized knowledge beneath the surface of the water, you too will move with dignity! 😛


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