Foxes, Crows, and Words I Don't Know

by Marcella Haddad on April 5, 2016

Sometimes, poetry can be incomprehensible, even if it’s written in your native language. So at first, trying to memorize poems in the languages I was learning seemed like I was just making my life unnecessarily difficult. But after actually reading, translating, understanding, and memorizing poems in other languages, I realized that they had more value than any amount of vocabulary lists or language learning programs.

In my high school French class, we had to memorize a poem about a fox stealing cheese from a vain crow. We memorized two lines each week, and we would be tested in front of the class. Slowly, but surely, we all learned the poem. It seemed like busy work at the time.

Except that now, 5 years later, I can still repeat it word for word.

Poetry, in any language, helps us make connections between things we never thought to compare before.

The basic premise of language learning is that neurons that fire together, wire together. To be a little less neurosciency, the more different connections you make between a foreign word and its meaning, the stronger your memory of that word is.

Poetry, in any language, helps us make connections between things we never thought to compare before. It can help us understand feelings we never put into words. So learning poems in other languages, especially those whose meanings really speak to us, help connect concepts on a more personal level than flashcards and notes.

The actual content that we memorize in poetry isn’t worthless either. Sure, there’s some flowery language and strange nouns that might not be used often, but poems can still teach us grammar and colloquial language. They help us understand how to communicate in that language, and how to communicate with the people who speak it.

The same poem I had to memorize in high school French came in handy when I had an exchange student from France stay with me. I started reciting it, and he joined in. A couple of words were different in the versions we knew, but it was a moment of shared understanding and appreciation of art.

Now, on my quest to learn Croatian, I’ve finally found some amazing resources of poetry and prose from Croatian poets. One of my favorites is “Što Tražiš?” (“What Are You Seeking?”) by Fran Mažuranić. In the poem, the narrator is asked what he’s looking for. He makes an interesting list, from a quiet tent to rest in, to a god he can believe in. I’ve begun memorizing the poem by making flashcards for the vocabulary and learning a few lines each day. I’m also starting to illustrate it.

Memorizing poetry takes time, but it’s a wonderful way to experience the beauty and feelings of a culture in its original language.