In “The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz,” a young man who wants to be an insect scientist is asked by the brilliant Harvard professor Louis Agassiz to study a flopping fish. After ten minutes the student thinks he is done, and frets when he cannot find Agassiz. His disappointment grows. Then, he says,
At last a happy thought struck me–I would draw the fish. Now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.
‘That is right,’ said he, ‘a pencil is one of the best eyes.’
My language acquisition teacher gave me this story to model how studied observation matters to language learning. With it he also assigned as reading an outline of Greg Thomson’s Growing Participator approach to language learning. Thomson’s model suggests that
Depth of relationship increases with learning. Learning happens when one, like the young would-be entomologist, does not tell his professor, “I’m done” right away, but keeps making observations and growing in curiosity with the community.
As an artist, this makes me excited. I am trained in observation. I like to draw things as a way of learning about them. Learning a language is like learning to draw; it is an exercise in developing the ability to see things the way that other people see them.
Sometimes art is the best door for me to participate in a community. Every Monday night, all of the people I work with–and some of our friends–get together at our director’s house for dinner. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the number of people and run out of words for steam.
On Monday, this happened, and I plopped against a pillow and started drawing the fish tank from the weird angle I was sitting at. Soon, young Ana brought baby “nephew ” Rio over to look at the tank. Suddenly, I wasn’t just making a little drawing of a fish tank, but a drawing of people interacting around a fish tank. Next, Ana asked me about it, and as I shared it with her, our conversation grew and extended to the people around us.
If, as Thomson suggests, to learn a language is to grow as a participator in a community, maybe it’s okay to start in the weird little corner by the fish tank.