Over the past four years, I have sat in my office (I have a day job) and watched two different skyscrapers being constructed or renovated.
Each building has followed a similar process, despite the differences between starting from scratch and renovating/extending: a massive flurry of activity which takes place behind mesh screens, or several storeys underground; the sudden appearance of fleets of concrete trucks, cranes and sheets of rebar; and finally the magical growth of new construction seemingly flying up towards the sky.
The initial stages (massive activity with no visible outcome) is beautifully described by my favourite Italian phrase – fare un buco nel’acqua – digging a hole in the water. At home we tend to describe this kind of situation as a bowl of spaghetti. Think about the Italian approach to portion-sizing; if you can see the plate/bowl, there’s not enough food. When you eat a bowl of spaghetti, you can get half-way through and look at the plate and believe that you haven’t done anything. But as you keep going, the white of crockery suddenly peeps through.
A new language can follow a similar trajectory. Once the initial thrill of saying something coherent (Hello, Thank you, Good-bye) wears off, you seem to slog through months and months of the intermediate stage. You don’t feel like you are actually accomplishing anything.
I feel like I am there now – times five. I have a couple of memorable phrases, but now comes the thinking. As an example, my Chinese teacher has introduced time-telling. This is not something that you memorise. You have to get down the basics; dian = o’clock, cai = before/to, fen = minutes. But once you have that down, it’s all about practicing the variations. Here is where Chomsky and his formal grammar kick in. You have one set of rules, a separate set of variables (in this case numbers) and quite a lot of possible outcomes (ways of telling the time through the course of a day).
This is the invisible part of the building, the first half of the pasta. It is where you have to put in the work, in the knowledge that it will produce an outcome. Once the basic rules are in place, you will be able to take one new word and use it in a multitude of ways. That is the exciting point where the building seems to grow by a storey a week.
I just have to remind myself of that as I plough through all of the structures, vocabulary, grammar and alphabets. Keep eating away and the spaghetti will eventually start to disappear.