This weekend was marked in my garden by the passage of many butterflies, most of which I could name – tortoiseshells, peacocks, and brimstones.


It struck me that although I lived in Italy for ten years and learnt to speak Italian pretty well, I probably never learnt the name of a single butterfly while I was there. This is not surprising on one level – you have a strong propensity to learn what you think you can use. On another level, however, it is a stark indication that certain fundamental, textural bits of knowledge will always go missing when you learn a language as an adult.

It would be odd not to know not just what a red admiral looks like, but what it is called; or a tortoise shell or cabbage white, or a brimstone or a peacock for that matter. And while that list, in truth, nearly exhausts my working knowledge of butterflies, I also know that there are such things in the world as purple emperors, fritillaries, various blues and Camberwell beauties.

Needless to say, to a lepidopterist my knowledge of the field would be pitiful, of the kindergarten variety, but that is really my point – children have zones of attention and stores of common words in a language which an adult learner will never really have occasion to match, but which for a native speaker are foundational. I suppose childhood is, in a sense, a form of cultural knowledge.

Perhaps the answer in this particular case is obvious: learn the latin binomials. Latin after all is still the lingua franca among lepidopterists.


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