Monday, October 23, 2006

Give Me Some Tongue

My boss is from the old country, and still has family back there. On occasion, he'll call them from the office and have a nice chat with them. I love to listen in. I have no idea what they're talking about - He speaks in Italian to them, and I don't understand Italian any more than I do ancient Sumerian. But it doesn't matter. It's beautiful sounding, and I love to listen. His mediterranean dialect dances with ease and comfort, and without a moment's concentration on his part. He is in his element, his native tongue, and he wears it like a comfortable shirt.

The last time such a call took place and I enjoyed the mere sound of it once again, I got to thinking how underratedly remarkable language is. These weren't just beautiful sounds I was listening to. Just random phonetic notes in a song. This was an intricate exchange, just as I had with my co-workers, friends and loved ones every day in English without a thought about what I'm doing or how it happens.

My boss came to America 50 years ago. He spoke little English and hung a lot with a circle of fellow immigrants. In time he learned the language, married and American woman, and ultimately bought the company which took him in. Throughout it all, he stayed tight with his immigrant Italian community, and his buddies have often stopped in the office for an impromptu visit. I have witnessed them all switch back and forth between Italian and English as if they were the same. It fascinates me.

I asked my boss once about a ponderable that had come across my strange thought processes. I asked if when he thinks things to himself, does his "thinking voice" use Italian or English. He told me he used to think in Italian, but now thinks in English. This, too, fascinated me to no end. Where is the point where your entire subconscious switches from one tongue, your native tongue, to another?

Imagine being plopped into a completely unfamiliar country which implements a language of which you have no experience. It would be difficult to interact ... but in time, chances are you could figure things out and even become quite proficient in speaking the language that is now the main communication in your world. I know you'll all call me a nerd, but man that is cool.

More astonishing yet, is watching it happen from square one. Not long ago, Incrediboy communicated only in cries. Then squeaks and grunts, then basic noises - mostly vowels - slightly resembling syllables, and on to rudimentary words. Suddenly he can hold entire conversations, exchange thoughts, absorb concepts.

Have you thought about how incredible it really is, that we can learn not just one language but two - or three - or even more? Is that amazing or what? That ANY one of us can do this?

I love the fact that humans have developed complicated patterns of language, and that they are used without effort. I love the way that even a language not learned until comparatively later in life can become second nature.

I know, I think too much about goofy stuff. But I can't help myself. Admit it, you missed it ;).

I'm feeling better, BTW. Many thanks to all of you who left get-well wishes.


bigwhitehat said...

I think your mind switches languages about the same time that you quit being a foreigner and become an American.

Nelly said...

Glad you're feeling better dear! You put such an amazing story to the simpliest thing. A different language no less! You always make me think about things I never think about! Thanks clewy!

Saur♥Kraut said...

Glad you're feeling better. Linguistics IS very interesting. There are some good books and studies out there on the development of languages, but basically a child learns through encouragement (whether the parents are doing it intentionally or not).

Say that the child says "ma ma" and in some languages, it means nothing and is ignored. Here, we go into delighted conniptions over it! The child is rewarded, and remembers that "ma ma" has some sort of importance.

If he says "Hua Hua" (pronounced hwa-hwa), we might encourage him to alter it to "wa-wa" for water, but in China, it means "little flower" and his parents would encourage the "h" in it.


Anonymous said...

Yahooo! Back is Cleeew! Glad you're feeling better and you're back to feeding us thought provoking posts.

Props to people who learn other languages...trying to learn just one sentence in Spanish and i get headaches.

Sam said...

Hey there! I understand what you mean, it really is cool that we humans can do that. But you probably do it too, without even knowing it. I bet you, like many people, speak a certain "language" while at work that you don't at home - kind of a "techno-speak." Whether it's computers or healthcare, or business, many of us are "fluent" in plain English (or other native tongues) and the jargon we use at work that people outside of that sphere wouldn't understand (like teenagers talking to their parents lol). :-)

Martie said...

I have always been amazed that someone can learn a different language than the one they were born into. And am also amazed at how fast children learn language from their parents......the human mind is an awesome device!!!

Rebecca said...

YES, I've missed you. :)
And that's so funny....about his thinking voice. I've often wondered that, but never asked!

It always amazes me when I see kids that are bi lingual and they speak sentences in half and half!!

Anonymous said...

I think it is amazing that you can learn more than one computer language too. I'm not a geek btw.