I, along with a few other ladies over at the AO Forum, are still very slowly plugging our way through Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. I really enjoyed the first couple of chapters of this book…and then he dived into all his 'rules' for analytical reading. Oy. I can't actually imagine myself 'analyzing' every word, sentence, paragraph in the way he describes. I always thought I was a detail-oriented person, but I don't think that it extends quite as far as would be necessary to do what Mr Adler describes in his book. I have very nearly set this book aside several times, but I keep on keeping on since a) our weekly reading assignments are very small and so don't take away much time from other things I'd rather read and b) it is one of the core books used in the upper years of AO. I don't want to knock it until I've really given it a chance.
So all of that is context to the section from chapter 9 that I read a couple of weeks ago. All of a sudden light bulbs started going off in my mind. Mr Adler is talking about the two tests one can apply to see if they really understand the crux of the point an author is trying to make: Test #1: Retell the author's point in your own words. Test #2: See if you can connect the author's point to a personal experience you've had or know about or something else you've read. Hmm, sounds awfully similar to what Charlotte Mason recommended for her students: Tell back what you just read. Make connections.
What was most fascinating to me is the parallel that Adler draws between this idea of retelling (narration) and translation:
" 'State in your own words!' That suggests the best test we know for telling whether you have understood the proposition or propositions in the sentence. If, when you are asked to explain what the author means by a particular sentence, all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations in their order, you had better suspect that you do not know what he means. Ideally, you should be able to say the same thing in totally different words. The idea can of course, be approximated in varying degrees. But if you cannot get away at all from the author's words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. You know his words, but not his mind. He was trying communicate knowledge, and all you received was words.
The process of translation from a foreign language to English is relevant to the test we have suggested. If you cannot state in an English sentence what a French sentence says, you know you do not understand the meaning of the French. But even if you can, your translation may remain only on the verbal level; for even when you have formed a faithful English replica, you still may not know what the writer of the French sentence was trying to convey.
The translation of one English sentence into another, however, is not merely verbal. The new sentence you have formed is not a verbal replica of the original. If accurate, it is faithful to the thought alone. That is why making such translations is the best test you can apply to yourself, if you want to be sure you have digested the proposition, not merely swallowed the words. If you fail the test, you have uncovered a failure of understanding."
~Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book (emphasis mine)
Isn't that an interesting analogy? Maybe I just thought it was interesting because I live in a bilingual country and do a fair amount of going back and forth between English and French myself. The church we attend is [mostly French but kind of] bilingual, so sometimes the sermon portion of the service is translated from French to English (or the other way around, depending on who's preaching). Given that I am fairly comfortable in both languages, it's usually pretty easy to tell when the translator really understands the message – he's digested it and turned it around quickly into proper idiomatic form in the other language. Other times you can tell that he's just grasping at words and translating literally word-for-word…at best it's a little stilted and at worst doesn't quite work (think: Google translate). A good translation – that's hard work! Often times over on the Forum, people will post about how their child is struggling with narration, and the encouragement and advice often given in this situation is that narration is hard work, it's a skill that takes time and experience to master. One has to attend, to comprehend, to sift through and organize the information that has been taken in, and then reproduce it in one's own words – in many ways the same thing that a translator is doing when he takes a message in French and has to turn it into English. "Tell back the story" seems simple…but when thinking in terms of translating the ideas the author is sharing from his 'language' into your own, I think it brings out just how much work it is - particularly for a child who has only ever been asked to spit back 'words' in reply to comprehension questions on a worksheet. I also liked how he used the swallowing vs. digesting analogy in that last line – fits right in with Charlotte Mason's analogy of spreading the feast before our children. Narration, while hard work, also ensures that our students are truly digesting the feast, and not just gulping and swallowing without tasting and savoring and being nourished.
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