The Language of Language

A Personal Story of Learning Another Tongue

Wednesday, September 08, 2010 - 04:03 PM

The blues are blue and when you get the blues you feel blue but listening to Blind Lemon

Jefferson does not immediately inspire a trip to the Cote ‘d’Azur. The ideas of blue for English speakers, for American English speakers, for French and Spanish speakers are certainly all different.

But what about the color blue? Is the blue sky over Nice and Barcelona the same color as the smoky azure in some Southside Chicago blues bar?

It’s impossible to know what happens inside the brain in this way but thinking about how brains are changed by the languages their owners speak. Got me thinking about how isolated I’ve always felt as a mono-lingual English speaking American who has a smattering of Latin, German and Spanish lying dormant inside his skull.

Dreaming of 10 living languages in my brain felt like some brainiac sci-fi experience. I would yearn for this as much as an antigravity belt or some more traditional enhancement. What would that feel like I would ask myself?

I remember reading long ago that memory dealt with language in very special ways. That in the beginning a new language was stored in memory like a dictionary that needed to be assembled. Talking this way was slow and gave you a headache. At a certain point though the words and rules migrated from this static dictionary memory into a living memory connected to the rest of your brain. In this way you would begin to compose thoughts in the language rather than decode them from one word list to another. How would this work? As someone who agonized over German language labs in high school this sounded like some kind of miracle. I wondered what it would feel like and assumed because I was too dense in the language department I would just never know.

As a reporter traveling around the world and working in the Middle East years later, I saw first-hand how people of different cultures interacted in this polyglot of half knowledge and incomplete vocabularies in languages not native. People used words like they were grabbing tools banging around in a box. The screwdriver is a chisel? Sure. Use that wrench as a hammer? Sure. Words were a means to an end and suddenly I was in the game with my primitive Hebrew and Arabic.

In trying to use my limited vocabulary to be understood, I immediately discovered the first truth about language and memory. Every new word I learned was dumped into my brain in the same place all the dead words from years in German class were still stored, dumped in with the French words even the Latin. I would grab a word and try to form a sentence and suddenly the German word for what I wanted to say popped up, or the French word.

This hodge-podge of all the dead languages there in a useless pile in my brain made it harder to communicate than in a game of charades. The most surprising thing of all was how well this still seemed to work even when speaking badly. There was considerable forgiveness for making language mistakes as long as you weren’t in France where The French would switch to English in an instant if they got the smallest sense that you were struggling.

How much of a non-native language you knew, how fluent you were said volumes about you and not all of it favorable. I learned a gigantic lesson about this in Israel where I befriended a Norwegian UN worker who was completely fluent in Arabic. I clumsily asked directions. He recited poetry from memory in a perfect accent like some mysterious Bedouin patriarch from the Hejaz. He loved Arabic culture and history and his dream was to live in the Middle East like T.E. Lawrence. He didn’t last long. No Palestinian would talk to him. They assumed that his fluency was the result of training by the Israeli Shin Bet secret police. “He is a spook,” my Arab friends would say to me. “You speak Arabic that well, it’s only from being Israeli spy or maybe C.I.A,” they would say to me in broken English. My broken Arabic was a compliment to them. They said it was nice I was taking the effort to learn.

But, learn too well and poof “spy.” As a fluent eager beaver spook I would lose all my friends as quickly as I could name the 10 Arabic verb forms. My diplomat friend left the Arab world heartbroken, chased out by his own fluency.

I studied my Hebrew and Arabic as hard as I could, being a crazy news reporter. The rest of the time I was immersed in trying to be understood and understand what was being said to me in the course of covering the news.

Then one day it happened — I formed a thought in Arabic that did not originate in English. It flowed out smoothly without any coding delays or odd German and French orphan words attached. It was exhilarating. A few days later I woke up from a dream all in Hebrew. Again, it was exciting. My brain had brought my new languages in from the cold. It changed how I looked at the world although I couldn’t say if it changed my actual brain. It made me a better reporter to be able to communicate even imperfectly in Arabic and Hebrew.

I wasn’t any kind of an insider in Israel and the Arab world. I just had a seat with a much better view. Blues from the Mississippi delta in America was still blue. I had a new shade: azraq (in Arabic). It described the intense blue in the hot skies over the ancient walled city of Jericho. Come to think of it there might actually be a blues song about that. You may have heard it: “Walls Come a Tumbling Down.”

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