Let a Poet Be Your Language Teacher Posted by Gary Locke on Apr 20, 2016 in Language Learning
April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Since 1996, National Poetry Month has become the world’s largest, and most sustained, literary celebration. Throughout April schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets honor poetry’s vital place in culture. While it celebrates and honors English language poetry specifically, poetry is found in every country. This seems like a good time to recognize the importance of poetry as a tool for learning languages across the globe.
Many of the fine writers who contribute to the Transparent Language blogs use poetry to help guide language learners. From Hindi to Arabic to French, poetry is essential in building vocabulary and increasing appreciation of the sound of the language itself. Poetry aids the learner in gaining a greater understanding of the myriad nuances of any language. Even if you have only a basic grasp of a language, reading a poem aloud will bring you a surprising grasp of the rhythms and music within that language. Two unconnected words, heard within the structure of a poem, suddenly may have a connection both in sound and in the way your mouth and tongue form those words. You begin to see the functioning aesthetic of the language.
If nothing else, poetry is a fantastic way to expand your vocabulary. There is a high probability that if you read a poem in a language you are learning, that poem contains at least one word that you don’t know. In all likelihood, you’ll want to look up that word’s meaning. Even then, it may not help you in fully appreciating why the poet chose that particular word.
But, that’s okay. You don’t have to understand the subtext behind each and every word. Context will help you along. Poetry plays with grammar and vocabulary in unique ways. If you are at all curious about a language – and if you aren’t, why are you studying it – you will be able to infer much of the poem’s meaning by working through it. You learn new ways to express a thought, which is another way of saying that you are gaining fluency in that language.
Remember, though, poets often use imagery as a catalyst to get us to think of something beyond the specific meaning of what is on the page. The goal is to stimulate an emotional response. If the poet writes, “I wandered lonely, as a cloud”, and you work out what that means, the next step is to ask yourself how that makes you feel.
How does that help you to understand the language? Because now you have to dig deeper. What is the story behind the poem? Who wrote it? What is the setting, both in time and place? By asking these questions, you begin to broaden your exposure to the culture and philosophy behind the poet’s language. Most poetry offers glimpses into the society from which it came.
Consider the unique world of French poetry. You may read the Chansons from the 12th century, Charles Baudelaire’s Romanticism of the 19th century, or the 20th century surrealism of Jacques Prévert. Due to the scope of history, the language is the same, but everything about how the language is used is markedly different. Add to this mix French Colonialism, and you’ll find poems written in French from places as widely diverse as Casablanca in Morocco, and Montreal in Canada.
The breadth of possibilities offered to the language learner through poetry is astonishing. Whether it’s Urdu poetry on Twitter, or a Romantic poem by William Wordsworth, if you want to learn a language, your best instructor may be a poet.