Languages and Chess

It has struck me that studying languages can be a little bit similar to the experience of studying chess.

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I’m not that serious about chess these days, and to be honest in fact I’m pretty rusty, but I went through a phase some years ago where I was studying different openings and tactics every day. At that time I was frequently playing chess games online against random opponents. It had an interesting, unexpected side effect.

As a result of all that study and practice, my mind was full of meaningless bits of chess all day. I would be eating dinner and would suddenly imagine a rook lift, out of context, or a bishop move that would check the king on a certain square.

I didn’t imagine these things deliberately, and they didn’t have any particular purpose, but they continued popping into my mind anyway. I suspect it was part of the process (or a harmless effect of the process) of my mind digesting and making meaning out of the positions that were still relatively fresh in my memory.

Just recently, as I’ve been studying German a little bit more intensely, I’ve started noticing something very similar going on. I have little meaningless bits of the language floating about in my brain.

The other day it was jeglicher and unerbittliche, and then yesterday niedrigere. Today it’s abgetane. Something about these words causes them to snag on the fabric of my consciousness and get caught there.

The words roll around in my head all day, always in the background but never fully gone. I taste them with my mind, drum their rhythms, scrape fingertips across their varied textures, chime their pure vowels, feel the rumble of their jostling consonants underfoot.

I suppose whatever we’re focusing on and putting time into must leave a sort of mental residue, more powerfully in proportion to how much work we put into it. Judging such residue might be a good way to get a sense of what holds a central place in our lives at any given moment, and of whether we’re happy about it.

Dreaming of Greek

There’s probably no language that I’m more excited to read fluently than classical Greek.

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I’ve spent time studying ancient Greek in the past, but I’m somewhat rusty with it by now, and it’s not the next language up on my roster to review. Still, I am hoping to get back to it within the next year or two (after spending some time in the next while strengthening my German and French).

I wrote in a previous post that there are a number of people in the West who wish they could learn Latin, because Latin held such a place of importance in our history and still somehow has a powerful hold on our imagination and identity. I mentioned there that Greek has a similar place in our history, but somehow also a weaker grasp.

The exception that I didn’t mention is how there are some groups of Christians who are strongly attracted to Greek because it allows access to the New Testament in the original language. (It also lets us read the ancient translation of the Old Testament in Greek, which is super cool, but people generally seem to get less excited about that thought.)

I have to admit, though, that personally what makes me most energized to study Greek is the thought of being able to read the Socratics, and their contemporaries, and their predecessors and successors. Philosophy and rhetoric, history and epic, tragedy and comedy. It sounds wonderful.

The age of Socrates was a fascinating time, and the events and thoughts and phrases of that time have echoed down the ages, ever since, ever relevant.

There are other languages and ages that I’m looking forward to immersing myself in. The Hebrew of the prophets. The Latin of the scholastics. The Italian of Renaissance Italy, perhaps. The German of Kant and those who came after. The French of the early 20th century.

If you told me that one of those other languages and its window into intellectual history seemed most fascinating to you, I would not try to argue the point. I too am attracted to all those paths, and hope to make my way to them eventually.

For now, though, for me, having not yet really mastered a single one of these languages or literatures, the moment that towers over all the others is Periclean Athens, and the intellectual movement which eventually found its centre there.

Time Passes

Do you ever find yourself saying, “Can you believe it’s the end of the month already? Where did the time go?”

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Time passes. It’s what it does.

And we have a choice about how we can live our lives. We can live in a way that makes the passage of time a sadness, or in a way that makes it a victory.

So often it seems a sadness. As time passes we lose things. We lose our youth, and with it, perhaps, some of our health, our strength, our beauty. We lose many of the friendships and relationships that characterized a more vibrant phase of our life. We lose some of the knowledge that we once worked so hard to memorize.

But there are also gains. We might gain wisdom. We might gain aged friendships that are stronger and deeper than the multiplicity of youthful friendships they replace. We might be more established in a career, might have more financial stability.

And if we set up our lives so that day after day and month after month we are brought irreversibly closer to our goals, then each passing span of time is a reason to celebrate.

If we are constantly trying to improve ourselves and our situation, and finding ways to make this happen as automatically or as effortlessly as possible, then time becomes a friend and an ally.

Start improving diet and exercise. Then a month gone is a month in the right direction. Study a language every day. Then a passing year is a year closer to mastery of that language. Read good books. Write.

Time will slip past no matter what we do. We might as well try to make that fact a reason for celebration rather than just for grief.

Relieved to be Virtuous

The other week, something encouraging happened. I made a note to myself to write it down, because I was so excited about it and I wanted to preserve the memory.

It was a Monday. I had spent the day busily bustling around, and made an extra effort to get through a to-do list that seemed especially long that day.

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In the early afternoon, my to-do list was growing shorter and less urgent, and a moment arrived when anyone else in the house was either sleeping or otherwise occupied, so that I had some time to myself. Time to spend however I liked!

Many days I would have taken a nap myself in a moment like that and felt no shame in it. Other days I might have sent messages to friends to keep in touch, or perhaps simply scrolled through social media looking for something interesting to read.

This day, however, as the time of freedom approached, I was looking forward to having a chance to review a piece of academic German writing that I’ve been reading through slowly with a friend.

The house was quiet. I made some coffee. And then I sat down and spent an hour reading German, looking up the words I didn’t remember, reviewing my list of unfamiliar words when I needed a little break, and then diving back in and reading more.

It’s not the first time something like that has happened in my life, but those experiences are rare.

It’s not rare for me to study languages, especially in the last couple years. But to rush to spend an extended period reading from a text, that is more uncommon.

The best parallel I can think of from the past is one time when I read John’s entire Apocalypse in Greek on a bus trip from Saskatchewan to BC. At the time I had hoped that was the beginning of a new habit, but in fact it was the end of one.

But a decade later, after much effort, I’ve gotten there again. I was, in that moment, relieved — relieved to have the chance to do something I felt good about wanting to do! And I’m relieved by that relief.

I can’t say what it means for the future, if anything, but I do feel good about who I’m becoming right now.