Linguistic Improvisation Via Honda

I’m back to joyfully jaunting around in my 17-year-old rust-pocked but trusty Honda to meetings, classes, and social gatherings. (The same Honda once starred in the Goose & Honda Love Story. Click HERE to read that weirdness.) Because I’m short and the driver’s seat is somewhat slumped, I position myself as far right on the seat as possible so the shoulder harness doesn’t catch me across the throat. And because my phone is often busy spitting out GPS directions, I listen to audiobooks on CD.

Each recorded book borrowed from the library comes in a plastic case harder to open than a pickle jar, at least while driving, so I situate the next disc on a soft fabric shopping bag on the passenger seat, careful to cover it with the another bag lest some convergence of sunlight and disc angle spark a conflagration. It’s entirely worth it since audiobooks combine the kindergarten-like pleasure of being read to with the magic of good literature.

That is, till hot weather returns. My CD player does not get along with my AC. I get about 20 to 30 minutes of audio play before the disc freezes up. Literally chills until it’s unplayable. I take it out, warm the disc against my chest, then slide it back in and stab buttons until the narration returns to where I left off. Sometimes I’m merging or looking for a turn-off and the disc plays on through weirdly repeated phrases and jittery vowel stutters. It is like innovative slam poetry or experimental theater coming at me right from the car speakers. I can’t help but listen for meaning.

It adds an entirely new layer to The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehsi Coates when the phrase “how much you see” repeats in a loop. It gives me more to consider about The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich when the single word “again” is stretched, over and over, to a whistle-sharp refrain. And when the narrator’s voice gets stuck on a single sound in J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place, it becomes both less and more than a word, like visiting a foreign country where someone keeps saying the same thing as if repetition might aid comprehension.

I’m not annoyed, I’m entranced. It’s strangely fascinating to have these audio glitches pop up in the midst of an already-fascinating book. I am grateful to my elderly car and old technology for teaching me a whole new appreciation for words.     

Clichés

“Story is an affirmation of our ties to one another.” 
~Terry Tempest Williams

My spouse and I are listening to a not-so-great audiobook as our long drive’s entertainment. After an hour or so I turn it off for a much-needed break. Mark is surprised I don’t like it. (Apparently he hasn’t heard my sighs.) I suggest the problem is not the plot but the clichéd writing. That’s when my marriage comes into question.

This man, with whom I have made children and to whom I have pledged lifelong fidelity, claims clichés are expected. He sees my expression but unwisely goes on to say he believe clichés are actually necessary.

It’s lazy writing, I tell him. As an editor I excise clichés with a fierce pen. (Although we editors no longer edit with pens.) 

Because we’re stuck in the car, I give him a bit of the cliché talk I share with writing classes. I say thanks to imaging studies, we know what writers have long understood. Sensory-rich language, particularly when embedded in stories, makes writing come alive for the reader.

When we take in straight-up information like a lecture or textbook, our brains show activity largely in the language-processing area. This indicates we are doing the basic work of decoding sounds or symbols into recognizable meaning. In contrast, a well-told story activates not only our language processing areas but also other areas of the brain – putting us inside the story. Say we read about walking into a much loved rib joint where smokers are finishing up bbq pork, greens and onions are frying, a milkshake is being poured from one of those chilled stainless steel malt cups. Our sensory cortex is activated as if we smell the smoker, hear the greens frying, see the thick milkshake slump into the glass. We may even salivate in anticipation.

Consider the way news comes to us. During a quick televised report we might hear brief facts about a suspected break-in on the west side of town, no one hurt, police investigating. We process the information along with the day’s avalanche of facts, unlikely to pay much attention unless we live on the west side or have our own troubling break-in memory. But if we’re told the story differently, we experience the story’s events. Say the homeowner is interviewed. She describes sitting on the couch late at night, snuggled up in her pajamas watching a movie. She thinks she hears something on the back porch. She mutes the volume, listens, gulping back her fear. When the doorknob rattles she grabs her phone. Suddenly broken glass is scattering across the kitchen floor. She leaps from the couch and runs to the front door, her fear-moistened hand scrabbling to turn the knob, and then she’s running barefoot across the snow to her neighbor’s house. She pounds on the door, almost collapsing in relief when she’s welcomed inside. As she tells the story, you react.. Emotional areas of your brain for fear and relief light up. Your motor cortex lights up in the area controlling your hand as if you too are scrabbling at the doorknob, then lights up in your legs and feet as if you too are running down the steps and across the snow.

That’s why I expound on this with my writing students, I tell Mark. So they know to let the reader’s arms feel their strain as they try to lift Grandma out of bed, preserving her dignity though they feel like weeping. So they help readers feel enraged at their high school math teacher’s expression when he suggested they drop out of calculus. So the reader’s skin prickles when they write about an unfair workplace. Mark is nonplussed. This man, who tears up at animal reunion videos, says maybe people don’t feel things as intensely as I do.

These are fighting words, but I’m still in explain-mode.

I’m talking brain imaging, I say. Our brains mirror other brains; that’s how we understand one another. He’s still got his patient listener face on, so I continue. This explains how clichés impair writing. Because when we hear a cliché like put the cart before the horse our brains don’t evidence any interest. That saying was originally a clever use of language the first 1,000 or 100,000 times it was said but our brains react minimally to clichés. Brain imaging shows we take them in only at the most basic level. Phrases like “scared out of my wits” or “made of money” were original once, but now they deaden our responses.  Besides, many clichés in common usage come to us from generations ago, when everyone knew how foolhardy it was to put the actual cart before the actual horse. Take the cliché “caught red-handed.” This likely came from centuries back, when serfs worked the land of some lord or another. There were strict rules against poaching. Even if one’s family was starving on what little they could grow, it was illegal to hunt on the lord’s land. Caught red-handed meant you had blood on your hands and would be severely punished.         

Mark alleges he still likes clichés and gleefully adds the cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”* It’s a game now. We continue to toss out ever more ridiculous clichés until we weary of them and put the audiobook back on.

Listening to it, we finally we reach a cliché-related accord. I agree with him that a book’s character can and perhaps should use clichés if it’s in keeping with that character. In this pop mystery, I can see why a character or two would talk this way. Mark agrees with me that the book we’re listening to also uses clichés in description and plot development outside of character narration, and it’s off-putting. We listen a few more miles and he says. “Now I can’t help but hear all the clichés. Thanks.” We give up on the book.

Yes, we’re still married. And yes, I still give that cliché talk but have learned to keep it in the classroom.

*The expression, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” first appeared in a book of husbandry back in 1523.  It’s also not true. Studies show you can teach old dogs new tricks, in fact senior dogs do better than young dogs when learning tasks that require inference or reasoning.

First published in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine.

Translating Intolerance

Ceiling in Cardiff Castle (If Google translate is correct: Nenfwd yng Nghastell Caerdydd)

“This place tried to turn my words into stones,” Seren says. She moved to rural Ohio less than six months ago with her husband and three daughters. Her oldest is a college freshman, the younger girls are in 3rd and 5th grade.

Seren grew up in New York City, an only child of busy parents who traveled often for business. Her Welsh-speaking grandmother lived with them and raised Seren on the stories, songs, and traditions of her homeland.  In her teens, Seren finally  visited Wales with her grandmother.  Soon after, her grandmother passed away but the language she imparted to her granddaughter thrived. Seren went on to get an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in Welsh studies.

She and her husband agreed they would raise their children in a dual-language home. Seren speaks Welsh to her children exclusively, her husband speaks to them in English. This is true both at home and in public. They know the benefits of being bilingual. Here are just a few:

  • Bilingual kids have enhanced social skills and communication abilities. In part this has to do with more experience understanding the perspective of the person speaking. This involves determining social cues and what’s called “theory of mind” — the ability to recognize one’s own motivations (intentions, beliefs, desires, knowledge, etc) and the understanding that others have their own motivations.
  • Dual-language students, in one study,  were a full grade level ahead of their monolingual peers in English-reading skills by the end of middle school. Some children in the study were just learning English, yet they outperformed monolingual native English speakers on tests. Chances are this has to do with the way learning two languages enhances executive function (working memory, impulse control, focus, and attention). Studies continue to show bilingual children have stronger executive function.
  • Early exposure to a second language affects how the brain organizes languages and improves its ability to learn a new language later in life, even if the first language is forgotten.
  • Bilingual people continue to benefit into old age if they continue to use both languages frequently. Brain scans indicate that bilingual people develop greater cognitive reserves. This extra gray matter makes a big difference. In people whose brains show similar levels of dementia, bilingual people show symptoms on average four years later than a monolingual person experiences them. This also may be true in stroke recovery. One study showed cognitive recovery was twice as likely for dual language speakers as for monolinguals after a stroke. Overall, using one’s brain to speak two languages actually delays cognitive decline.

Growing up, Seren says she remembers being a little worried each time a new friend met her grandmother because she and her grandmother spoke to each other in another language. But without fail her friends thought her grandmother was cool. Many of her friends incorporated a few Welsh words into their conversations in a way that became their own informal slang.

Seren’s older daughter also struggled a bit with a bilingual home when she was a teenager. But she’s also known from the time she was a small child that fewer and fewer people speak Welsh. Only 11 percent of people living in Wales speak it fluently, a little over 300,000 people in total. When their daughter is home, she quite naturally speaks in one language to her mother and another to her father.

Since moving to Ohio, however, this bilingual family met with difficulties they never expected. While at a school function for her younger daughter, a classmate’s mother overheard Seren speaking to her daughter in Welsh. That girl later spread the word that she wasn’t allowed to play with Seren’s child because she “wasn’t American.” (Every member of Seren’s family is an American-born citizen, although that’s not the point.)

Another time her middle daughter had a friend over. When Seren and her two younger daughters exchanged a few amused Welsh words about the snack being put on the table, the 10-year-old friend accused them of laughing about her and said she wanted to go home.

And waiting in line at a grocery store, Seren and her daughters spoke to each other in Welsh while the woman in front of them was being checked out. The woman said loudly to the cashier, “It’s disgusting the way people come to this country and can’t even learn the language. Makes me sick.”

Seren says she can’t imagine what other people must be enduring to keep their culture and language alive in a time when frightening acts of intolerance are on the rise.

After her daughters pleaded with her, she made a concession. For the first time in 18 years, Seren changed the way she speaks to her daughters. They now keep Welsh to themselves. Speaking only English around others, she says, “is like losing Nain all over again.”

But she hasn’t given up. She is working with the elementary school to put on an annual international fair where the world’s diversity will be celebrated in song, story, art, and food. She’s also planning to invite new friends and neighbors to a traditional Welsh Christmas party at her home this year.

Translation: Adversity brings knowledge and knowledge wisdom
Approximate pronunciation: Ad-vid ah thoog wibod-eyth ah gwibod-eyth doy-theen-eb

The Language We Speak Shapes Us

interesting words in other languages

When I was in elementary school, my cool cousin Arlene attended high school in Germany as a foreign exchange student. The whole concept of leaving one’s home and one’s language was inconceivable to an anxious little kid like me. Arlene’s coolness factor instantly became far vaster.

I saw her when she came home that summer. It was one of those extended family get-togethers where younger kids eat at separate tables, but I did my best to stare at her from afar. It was obvious to me her time in Europe had already made her more sophisticated than our not-well-traveled adult relatives. I’d always wanted to be like her (and like her older sister Laura and our second cousin Linda) but that jig was up. I could never hope to be as confident and poised as she was after her time abroad. I listened carefully when she answered a question about polishing her language skills. I’ve never forgotten what she said.

“You know you’ve got it when you start to dream in another language.”

To speak another language seemed amazing . To dream in it was, to me, unimaginable.

Our thoughts, or at least our perspectives, may very well be shaped by the language(s) we speak. The structure of language matters because of the way it categorizes and labels —shaping our view of reality.

One recent study looked at people who spoke both German and English, as well as those who spoke only one of those languages. Research subjects were shown video clips of people walking towards their cars, cycling towards stores, and so on. Because of the way the separate languages work, German monolingual speakers tended to describe the entirety of the scene, including the person’s action as well as their apparent goal. English monolingual speakers tended to describe only the person’s actions. When it came to people fluent in both languages, Germans who spoke English were goal-focused when tested in their home countries unless they were primed to speak and think in English, in which case they were action-focused. And English speakers who spoke German were more action-focused unless they were primed to speak and think in German, in which case they were more goal-focused. So the language they were using to both think and speak affected they way they described a scene. Okay, maybe that’s just semantics.

But there are enormous benefits to thinking in another language. For example, people who are bilingual appear to make better choices when they think them through in a non-native language. Researcher Boaz Keysar who studies decision bias, writes,  “A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking.”

And there are drawbacks. The language we speak may affect how we think about and see other people. Even people of our own ethnicityResearch shows that Israeli Arabs who speak both Arabic and Hebrew show weaker positive associations with common Arabic names when tested in the Hebrew language. This research says a great deal about culture as well as language.

Our words come not only from our mouths, they come from our worldview. In the Mohawk language, for example, the individual doesn’t stand alone but is in spoken of in relationship to a larger whole.  While in English we’d say “to bury,” in Mohawk it is said as “to wrap his body with the blanket of our Mother Earth.” And when one is ill, it’s not said, “I am sick” but instead, “the sickness has come to me.”

I am sadly monolingual now that my Spanish lessons from middle school have faded from memory. But I am fascinated by language, especially terms for which there are no equivalents in English. We’ve all experienced ideas too large to explain and feelings inexpressible through mere words. Surely every language contains words that convey something crucial yet untranslatable, concepts that are perfectly clear in one tongue yet come out as awkwardly clumped phrases in other languages. They are unique to the geography and culture, yet globally relevant. Here are a few examples.

The Turkish word huzur literally means “presence” but takes on larger connotations having to do with serenity, particularly the inner peace that comes from living in a routine.

The Indonesian word jayus refers to a joke told so poorly that others cannot help but laugh.

The Irish word leaspáin describes those illusory flickering lights that dance before one’s eyes, caused by exhaustion or a knock on the head.

The  Yup’ik word name Ellam Yua is not only the name for the deity considered “person of the universe” but also has to do with one’s spiritual debt to the nature, an outlook of generosity or grace, and awareness of the soul inherent in all beings and things.

The Italian word commuovere often translates as “heartwarming,” but is typically used to refer to a story that moved you to tears.

The Welsh word hiraeth is translated as “homesickness” but means much more. It implies a sense of belonging to the land itself and, when away, an emptiness that can only be filled by returning to Wales. Even then, it’s a yearning that can’t entirely be met, a wistfulness for something that no longer exists.

The Japanese word tsundoku is leaving a book unread after purchasing it.

The Greek word μεράκι (meraki) means enthusiasm and attention to aesthetic outcome when performing a task, however ordinary.

The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee word ondinnonk can refer to the innermost aspect of one’s nature as well as to a soul wish as expressed in dreams.

The Swedish word gökotta means to wake up early specifically to go outside and hear the first birds sing.

The Thai word nam jai translates literally as ‘water heart,’ and refers to the selfless nature of a person who gives without any expectation of anything in return.

The Korean word hwabyung describes the stress-induced illness of repressed anger, particularly related to unfairness that cannot be addressed.

The Russian word poshlost means what is trashy and vulgar but pretends to be profound or beautiful. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment.

The Italian word vendemmia simply translates to “grape harvest,” but means much more — the sense of community and celebration that comes with the harvest.

The Yiddish word trepverter means a witty retort you think of only when it’s too late to use.

The Tamil word kindal is to praise a person so much that the praise turns into a insult or teasing.

The German word torschlusspanik translates as “gate-closing panic” and is used to describe the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.

The Hokkien (Chinese dialect) word lau hong translates as “leaked air” and describes food that’s meant to be crispy or hard, such as crackers, turned soft.

The German word kummerspeck refers to excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.

The Portuguese word saudade refers to an intense, overwhelming longing for something that may never exist, such as an impossibly perfect soulmate.

The Japanese word yūgen names the sense that nature possesses a mysterious beauty that can be seen but not understood.

The Yup’ik term ataucimek umyuarluteng means being of one mind. It refers to the the way people in relationship, whether a couple or a village, flourishes when they function in agreement rather than pushing one’s own purpose ahead of others.