March 5, 2010

Yours, Hypothetically—03/05/2010

Dear Language Textbook Writers,

I think there comes a point when most beginner-level language students, frantically committing to memory interminable lists of vocabulary, suddenly stop half-flash through an index card and think: Wait. What? Why the hell would I ever have to know the term for “pet grooming salon” in Russian? Are dogs even allowed in Russia? I don’t even know the verbs “to feed” or “to own” a pet, but I’ll damn well be taking my puppy to get shampooed and pruned the next time I’m in Moscow! And why does this Mandarin textbook require me to have such an eerily intimate knowledge of the names of gardening tools? Who even uses machetes any more? That’s a question I can’t answer, as I have not yet learned the Mandarin word for “people.” And why does this Greek textbook think it so very essential that I learn the word for “toilet paper” when a) we barely have reflexive verbs down and b) it’s Greece—I doubt that term is even very relevant there. What I’m trying to say is—and I’d hate to seem short-sighted, learned textbook authors—sometimes it just seems that there is a fundamental lack of prioritization when it comes to your selection of vocabulary.

But maybe I’m just bitter because I’m taking Russian 102, I’m on my second 400+ page ($100+) textbook this year, and tomorrow one of the phrases I will be tested on (for my second vocabulary quiz this week) is: “These pants look good on Olya.” There’s a good chance that, should I go to Russia, I will be categorically unable to process basic directions, but will be able to assert myself as a prime rascal nine times out of ten. So, in fairness, I should say that an incredibly specific situation probably does exist in which such a phrase (and indeed the ones referenced in the first paragraph also) may not just be useful but absolutely VITAL. Like, I don’t know. Maybe you’re in Russia with your St. Bernard and some Russian youth spills his borscht all over the poor thing. You’re gonna need a салон for your собака, stat! Or, imagine yourself in China, strolling through some obliging garden with your best girl, when she seizes you, hard, by your arm, and says, “My darling, I’m sorry. I’d love to continue this romantic promenade with you, only my foot is caught in this nasty Chinese bramble, making it impossible for me to move. If only we had a 大刀…” You’re in Greece, and for the zillionth time that week, you walk into a bathroom with no toilet paper. You don’t notice this fact until it’s too late, so, from your perch on the crapper, you yell “χαρτί τουαλέτας!”

And Olya. Olya’s got new jeans. Those jeans look proper fit on Olya, and not the other way around. If you don’t tell her soon, she may think that the reason people are staring at her bum is because it possesses some appealing property of its own. You disillusion her gently, “Оле идут брюки.”

…Yeah, I still think you guys might need to do a better job of prioritizing.

Yours Hypothetically,