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Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched


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The beautiful fragility of language

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Alas, this is not how my first day of kindergarten went. Credit: Creative Commons, Archives New Zealand.

I remember my first day of school with such clarity that it might as well have happened last week. I was five, and I was starting in the local kindergarten, along with all the other kids my age. Except for one difference: I didn’t speak a word of English. Not a one. The only thing I knew how to do was write my own name—M-A-R-I-A—so that I could recognize it if the need arose. I practiced it over and over in the days leading up to that morning. It was my one safety net, the only thing I knew I could be sure of.

I was ushered off the school bus—my parents had walked me to the stop and fed me to the yellow monster, despite my protestation of a (very real, might I add) stomachache—and into a mob of other lost-looking little people. We made our way downstairs in a wobbly attempt at a line, and I was shown into a bright room with a sandbox in the corner. In the middle was a table with laminated cards on pieces of string. Our name cards. We were to find ours and put it on, that much I gathered from the flurry of activity. I was prepared. M-A-R-I-A.

But when I got to the table, M-A-R-I-A was not to be found. I looked again. I walked around to the other side of the table. I watched as the supply of cards dwindled down to one. And still I didn’t have my name. I could feel the threatening rumble of tears in the corners of my eyes, and it was all I could do not to burst out crying in front of my new classmates. The teacher, sensing my imminent distress, bent over and took the remaining card from the table. She handed it to me with an encouraging smile. I shook my head. That wasn’t me. She tried again, thinking I didn’t understand, motioning for me to put the string over my head. But I understood only too well. My card was irretrievably lost. I wasn’t the somebody she thought I was. I burst into tears.

I’d been right. My card was nowhere to be found. I had been, on that first day, ushered into the wrong classroom. My room and my teacher, and—hurrah—my name card had been waiting next door the whole time.

***

We tend to take language for granted. Our memories of not understanding it, of not being in control of it, of not being able to use it to communicate our needs, our wants, our desires, our emotions are, on the whole, blissfully nonexistent. As soon as we’re born, we’re able to pick out key features of the language that surrounds out—infants even a few hours old can already distinguish between different rhythmic families, reacting differently to, say, English, in contrast to French or Japanese—and long before we can say our first word, we have a fairly good idea of what’s going on around us. We’re well-oiled language-acquiring machines. It’s like that old joke that somehow never gets old, of how wonderfully little children in France (or Russia or insert your foreign country of choice) speak French. So young, and so fluent! And no accent in sight.

But if you stop to think about it for just a second, language, in all its rich complexity, is the last thing in the world that should make intuitive sense. However do we grasp it as quickly as we do? How do we remember it all (so much to memorize! so many irregularities and exceptions! but do you actually recall memorizing a single word, apart from when you were cramming for your SATs?). Where did it even come from to begin with? Some of the greatest minds of our time—Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, to name just a few—have wrestled with these questions. But when it comes to the language we speak every day, we don’t tend to ever ask. We forget that there was a moment when we, too, had to learn, when we, too, didn’t know. It just seems so, well, so simple.

It’s not. I was lucky: I was very young, and had very good teachers. For my first few years in school, I would go to an ESL program for several hours during the day—I resented it, because it set me apart from the rest of the class, but in retrospect I can appreciate its effectiveness—and by the time the end of first grade rolled around, I’d almost forgotten the pain of not having the slightest glimmer of what was going on. I never had an accent. I didn’t have time to fall behind in reading or writing. Lucky, indeed.

For others, the story of language acquisition is far more than a nice anecdote. There are the immigrants who move later in life and struggle for the rest of their lives with not being able to speak without a foreign tinge—I even know families where parents can’t communicate properly with their children: they don’t speak fluent English but never wanted the stigma of foreignness for their offspring and so made a point of not teaching them Russian; it kills me to see the contortions they go through in endless cycles of non-understanding—and there are the native speakers whose language machine is somehow thrown out of whack. Sometimes, the malfunction happens later in life—a stroke that renders someone unable to speak, painfully reacquiring the lost movements, letter by letter; a lesion that leaves its victim babbling incoherently or repeating a syllable over and over and over or trying but failing to retrieve the proper word, which he knows is right there, just out of reach; a tumor that makes the process of communication no longer simple at all—and sometimes, it’s with us from birth—the various dyslexias that make the same thing that comes so naturally to most children come not at all to others, the developmental and cognitive quirks and turns that make language a constant struggle. But whatever the specific case, the theme is constant: language is fragile. Our grasp of it, equally so. It’s not something to be taken for granted. Not at all.

***

I lied earlier. I never did forget the pain of being lost, without a single word to help me out of the confusion. That first day of kindergarten, I didn’t calm down when I was finally restored to the proper classroom. If only it were that simple. Instead, I couldn’t stop crying, no matter what anyone did or said. I was inconsolable. And so, my teacher sent for reinforcements.

In what was to become an almost daily ritual, my older sister—my selfless, eternally patient saint of an older sister—was pulled from her sixth grade classroom upstairs to come and soothe the pain. Only then did I calm down—only to erupt again on the bus ride home, when I thought the driver had missed my stop, and I had no way of telling her that if she didn’t turn the bus around, I’d never get home. The cycle continued, over and over and over. Nearly every day, I cried. And nearly every day, my sister came to make it all better.

I remember the tears. I remember the embarrassment. I didn’t want to be the girl who was always crying. I just couldn’t help myself. It was too frustrating to never be able to say what I wanted or communicate what I felt. I wasn’t used to that helplessness, after all. Up to that point, I’d been just fine in my Russian world. Everyone understood me perfectly. And now that they didn’t? It all came out through my tear ducts.

Perhaps that’s where my love of language was first born, the knowledge that I should never take a single word for granted, that the understanding that seems so natural and matter-of-fact can be taken away just as easily as it was first given. Perhaps I should be thankful for those endless tears, after all.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rshoff 12:33 pm 12/14/2012

    Language is fragile. Which is why we defend it so. Within the language holds meanings of rituals and cultures. Shared hopes, dreams, values, ideas. Shared pasts, presents, and futures. The loss of language is more than the loss of transactional communication. It is the loss of a way of life that has been encoded into it.

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  2. 2. mkonnikova 11:22 am 12/17/2012

    @rschoff: Thank you for that insight. It’s true that language and culture are intimately linked–all the more reason to preserve dying languages and celebrate our linguistic diversity.

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