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Since finishing my degree two months ago, I’ve been a very flirtatious bibliophile, briefly skimming anything I can get my hands on in almost any subject.  I’ve tried to commit to some serious textbooks on subfields of linguistics, or to a hefty classic like Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, but it seems my brain needs a summer vacation.

Recently, while daydreaming about interesting jobs I could pursue if academia never pans out, I picked up a book called Perfumery: Practice and Principles (I’m sure I’d make an excellent master perfumer…)  by Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephan Jellinek.  There was much more organic chemistry in the book than I’ve ever been able to tolerate, but it was also oddly fascinating.  It’s a useful introductory textbook for aspiring young perfumers, and while the appendix is full of scientific diagrams of chemical reactions, much of the text is devoted to the theory of fragrance and the training of perfumery students.

In the chapter on how novices should begin their studies, one passage immediately caught my attention:

As in learning a foreign language, the first stage in learning the materials – the vocabulary of perfumery – necessitates repeated smelling and testing.  This task can be made simpler, and in the long term more effective, if it is approached in a systematic way, namely one based on an understanding of how human memory works.[1]

If you swap the operative phrases in that first sentence, this passage could show up in the first chapter of any applied linguistics textbook.  I was intrigued.

Getting to know the raw materials is not a training of the nose or the olfactory receptors (it is doubtful that the receptors can be trained at all), it is the training of the thought processes that provide the link between the perception of an odor and one’s ability to recognize it and give it a name.  These processes, as all mental processes, are based on a complex network of associations.  Each new odor learned, like each new word in our vocabulary, is integrated into an existing framework of meanings and olfactory associations.  Fortunately, the more a student knows, the easier it becomes to add new materials to the existing memory bank.[2]

Now I’m riveted.  What the authors are describing here sounds remarkably similar to some of the major models for second language acquisition – those that tend to be called the “Associationist” or “Connectionist” models.  Replace the word “olfactory” with the word “linguistic” and you have an almost perfect definition.

To be sure, not all SLA researchers agree with the theory of memory and learning proposed by Associationism/Connectionism; what the authors of this book are doing is using a very specific model for cognition and applying it to perfumery.  So not all linguists will like this analogy very much.  Innatists (think Chomsky and Pinker) argue that the language learning faculty is separate and different from the rest of human learning, so they probably wouldn’t like any analogy at all.

But as a language learner, I find the analogy to have at least intuitive appeal.  Language learners, like perfumery students, are confronted with an enormous amount of “raw materials” and must find a way that works for them to organize these materials mentally.   Calkin and Jellinek say, “We may be said to know a material absolutely when our recognition of it becomes immediate without our having to think of a description.  We recognize the odor like an old and familiar friend.  We recognize benzoin simply because it smells of benzoin.” [3] This echoes what many SLA researchers (Brian MacWhinney comes to mind) have argued and what many language learners have noticed intuitively – you don’t really know a word until you can recognize it just as it is, rather than as a translation of a word in your native language.  The master perfumers add,

Finally, we learn to know a material actively.  To continue with our analogy, being able to recognize someone instantly on the street is not the same as really knowing him or her.  You know a person only if you have observed that person’s behavior in different situations.  The same is true of perfumery materials.  One really comes to know a material only by actively working with it.[4]

I probably don’t need to explain how well that analogy works for language learning too.

So if these authors make interesting observations about language acquisition by analogy, maybe they could offer some interesting tips for language learning as well.  Here is another passage:

[In the beginning] the student should be encouraged to write down some descriptive remarks about these odors, using whatever associations come to mind.  These odors may conjure up memories from the past, such as the smell of grandmother’s cupboards, hot potato pancakes, or freshly dug-up roots of old trees. …In this way the student consciously builds up a network of associations to assist in remembering the odors.[5]

I love those images.  (I also love that they add, “At this stage such descriptions reflect the individual associations of the student, and neither the teacher nor fellow students can judge them as being objectively right or wrong.”[6])  In some ways I think perfumery students have an advantage over language students.  They say that smell is the sense most strongly associated with memory, and how exactly can we associate the Greek word for “to carry” or the Russian word for “agree” with grandmother’s cupboards or hot potato pancakes?  And, of course, the raw materials of any language are nearly infinite, whereas the training manual for perfumers only lists 162 individual items to be initially memorized.

But language students have other unique advantages.  We can experiment with our raw materials in countless situations; we can use language in all five of our senses; we can actively and passively recall what we have learned (as the perfumers lament, “Can we really recall the smell of a rose in the same way that we can recall a color or a melody?”).  In the end, we too get to create something beautiful and interesting and probably idiosyncratic.  And maybe we’ll hear a song one day, or read a story, that reminds us of the smell of freshly dug-up roots of old trees.


[1] Calkin, R. R. & Jellinek, J. S.  (1994).  Perfumery: Practice and principles.  New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.  P. 24
[2] P. 24-5
[3] P. 28
[4] Ibid.
[5] P. 26
[6] Ibid.

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.