Up the River

It’s pretty amazing what comes up the river – last week it was a seal, seen disporting in St. Ives; 1200 years ago it was the Vikings in their long boats (I may be using a little imaginative licence here, but there is still a part of Cambridge known as Danish Town).

Rivers are how you get into the land. In the nineteenth century and before, explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley (Congo) and Alexander von Humboldt (Orinoco) pushed inland into great continents along vast river systems.


Humboldt up the Orinoco

In the same way, if less perilously, there are quick routes into languages. A specific need, for example, often professional.

When I was first in Rome my very limited Italian was quickly put to use in the classroom; I had groups of students in my first year with no English whatever, and I was encouraged by my school to use Italian as a support for those students (rightly or wrongly). So I was very quickly able to describe tasks (put the words in the gaps), or talk about grammar (this a noun, this is an irregular verb) or translate tricky words in material that I re-used with different groups. The key was to recycle whatever my students said to me with the next group, and so on, so that I had not only a way of explaining but a range of expression with which to do it. I could talk about absolutely nothing else, of course. I remember going for a pizza with one group at the end of their course and being asked by a student what sort of thing I enjoyed reading; and finding the conversation at the stuttering limit of my competence. But I suppose that conversation itself laid the basis for others I would later have; and the important thing was that the spine of competence could be added to, and strengthened, year on year, encounter on encounter.

There is, however, a cautionary tale. Humboldt, in his progress up the Orinoco in the early nineteenth century, made maps, and, running across small missionary settlements, marked them on his maps. For many years after his death, his maps were the only ones of the area, and formed the basis for all maps until well into the twentieth century. One small settlement, for example, called Esmerelda, appears on editions of the Times Atlas from the 1970s. In the 1980s, Dutch explorers followed his routes, consulting his maps as they went, discovered that many of these cities, Esmerelda included, no longer existed. They had been reclaimed by the jungle decades since.

And so with language. Memory fades. Moments of illumination are swallowed up by virulent and inimical ignorance. Esmerada disappears and the seal swims back out to the sea. Unless, like the Vikings I suppose, we settle down and do a bit of trading. But I appear to have pushed a little far up into this impenetrable metaphor, so will retreat.