Category Archives: language


“I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
  – Robert McCloskey

I think this convoluted quote is the essence of what I find so fascinating about words, language, communication in all its many forms, from a simple phrase uttered sarcastically, “Don’t you look great…” so that its basic meaning is twisted into a Joker grin, to a woman’s shy smile and downcast eyes that tell a man across the bar, “Come hither…”  

There is meaning, instinct, drive, passion in our minds and in our hearts, in our very bones and we vibrate with it, attempting through our howling and gyrating to transmit what we so desperately need others to know.

And so often it goes wrong.  What may start as a simple misunderstanding, “Honey when I ask you to put your socks in the hamper what I really mean is that I need you to thank me for making such a nice dinner tonight that you gulped down without even noticing because all you ever pay attention to is wrestling but I can’t tell you directly because then it won’t mean anything if you say it…” and it ends up in court with two lawyers and a judge trying to pin down through legalspeak exactly what each party means to say.

Sometimes I think that my husband and I get along so well because we both hear what we want to hear, and that’s pretty much what the other person is saying.  If he says, “That dinner was delicious” and I need to feel reassured about my mothering skills, I will extrapolate that, well, if I make a tasty dinner, then the kids will surely eat it, and they will therefore be nourished, which is one of my primary parenting functions, so therefore I must rock as a mother!  And I can say, “Thank you, honey,” and feel satisfied.  

I know I spent a lot of my life doing the opposite of this.  If I heard the above compliment I would have thought something like, “Oh sure, my parenting is so rotten that all you can think of to compliment is the food.”  Or perhaps, “Maybe if I had spent less time working on dinner and more time reading to the kids, then I would be a better human.”  Or some such.  Looking for trouble, basically.

The point is, there is an awful lot of translating going on in communication.  The quote introduces many of them: “know,” “believe,” “understand,” “think,” “say,” “realize,” “hear,” “mean.”  Don’t forget about, “see,” “assume,” and “reckon.”  All these actions and reactions ricochet around in our heads and in the space in between the communicators, reflecting, distorting, amplifying, blocking.  Really it’s a wonder we ever “get” anything at all.

But sometimes, as in the above example with my husband, I find that if I just assume you said what I wanted you to say, then I can get things to go my way.  Manipulation?  I suppose.  But I remember when I would use this while waiting tables in a restaurant.  I think I used the technique to a good and noble effect.

For example, I remember once when a man came in with his wife and he was hellbent on having a crappy evening.  I don’t know if this attitude was his M.O. or if he had just had the mother of nightmare days at work or what.  Normally I would have gone into “civil” mode, just had the minimum of contact with the table, gotten them their food and then left them to duke it out.

But this time, maybe I felt sorry for his wife, I decided that I was going to do my usual pleasant schtick and he was going to play along if I had to clonk him over the head with a plate.  He griped and snapped at me right off the bat, and I reacted as though he were being pleasant.  At one point I could tell that he was annoyed that I wasn’t going to fight back, and neither was I going to grovel.  He just didn’t know what to do with my stubbornly happy little persona.

Then halfway through the meal I came back to ask them in a chipper tone if they were enjoying the food.  I could tell that his body had relaxed some, and he actually answered me with a neutral, ALMOST friendly voice.  He was able to admit that the food was good.

Now did I purposely manipulate his emotions and trick him into acting the way I wanted him to?  Maybe.  That was definitely my intention.  Might have been a coincidence.  Maybe his wife had promised him some hot action later that night if he’d just hop off his high horse and chill.  Who knows.

My point is, the listener has more power than we sometimes realize.  Sometimes maybe I do “realize that what I heard is not what you meant” but that’s because what you said is mere thoughtless inanity, and maybe I can see that it’s not so helpful to you either, so I’m just going to “insert my message here” and see if that takes us to a happier place.

Now does that make any sense?


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Semanturgy and language education

Let’s face it, there are two kinds of people studying foreign languages today in our elementary and secondary educational institutions as well as in our colleges and universities: people who want to and people who are required to. 

The people who want to learn another language, who drool at the sight of a new vocabulary list and spend hours cross-referencing words in various  dictionaries, these wonderful souls do not need much in the way of curriculum.  You could use the oldest, lamest textbook in the world and they would eat it up.  Being one of these languages nerds myself, I know that when I am gathering resources for a class and I want to serve this population, I am looking for any and all types of fun stuff.  The materials do not have to be perfectly organized or tantalizingly arranged, because we are going to joyfully dive into it no matter what.

The other group of language students is another story when it comes to curriculum development. An instructor must always have an eye towards inspiring the reluctant student to realize, if not the joy, at least the utility of the language being acquired.

To this end, I propose that an approach based in sematurgy would be beneficial, both more engaging for students as well as resulting in a greater long term retention of the material.

A language education based on working with meaning would mean that everything would be relevant to actual usage. Students would work with dialogues, music and film for oral production and comprehension, and for reading and writing there would be texts and assignments that related to the students’ personal lives and connect them to the lives of their counterparts speaking the acquired language.

Many of the latest textbooks I have seen do include this type of material, but there is still a large focus on grammar, conjugation and similar types of technical aspects of language. While I would never suggest that these are not vital to a complete understanding of a language, I would state that I do not believe they are necessary for the kinds of introductory language studies we find required for high school diplomas and Bachelor of Arts degrees. I believe they can be left out of these basic language courses and addressed in the intermediate and advanced language studies for those who actually want to pursue a deeper mastery of the language.

Let me briefly present my reasoning behind this: I believe that time spent concentrating on memorizing nitpicky grammar like verb conjugations, for these folks who don’t really want to be studying language, is completely wasted. Even if they manage to memorize it for an exam, they will immediately put it out of their brain and it will never be recalled again. Better for them to spend that time working with meaningful dialogues, lyrics, or texts in which popular verbs will be repeated enough times that they will become stuck in their minds and they will be able to be remembered and used at a future time. Better that the student can walk away with the ability to have basic conversations with people who may one day be encountered than to be able to recite verbs in the subjunctive.

Better still that they spend this time learning about the culture and history of the people who speak the particular language being studied, because isn’t that the major reason given for requiring foreign language study? To be exposed to another way of life?.

Of course, there will certainly be occasions when a discussion of verbs or grammar will become relevant, but it will be brief and presented merely as a tool to accomplish the task at hand. The grammar in a sematurgy-based introductory language education will be acquired mostly unconsciously, similar to the way we acquire the rules of our native language in the natural way before we study them formally later on. We will follow the same non-method as little children learning their first words; a toddler learns the significance of “cookie” and “park” and “no” because they are intensely meaningful.

If we work with what is meaningful to the students and present the acquired language in these terms, whether it is music, society, current events, relationships or any other subject, they will learn important things about the other language-speakers that will deepen their world perspective and they will also retain relevant parts of the language, like basic conversational skills, that will actually be useful in their future lives.

These reluctant students may still never experience the joy of becoming fluent in another language, but they will at least integrate basic, useful parts of that language into the knowledge base they develop by interacting with the world in a personal, meaningful way, and so the language will be for them what language should be: a vital tool of authentic communication.

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Semanturgy – meaning as medium

When you study a second (or third or fourth) language, there comes a point in your conversational ability where you stop trying to translate everything you hear and say into and out of your native language. The words of this new language become directly linked into meaning, and when you mean something, suddenly an approximation of this meaning comes immediately out of your mouth using sounds and inflections that you did not know how to use at one time in your past. 


I am fluent in three languages, and at one point I had a conversation with a neighbor who was also trilingual. It was one of the most wonderful conversations I’d ever had: his native language was Spanish, mine English, and we both were fluent in French. Still, we did not know every word in our non-native languages, so when we began to stumble, we would switch spontaneously into another language. We used all three languages without any real regard to which one we were speaking or hearing, just switching as it felt necessary, rather than pause to search for the word.

That night I had a dream in which I was speaking to a few people in an informal setting, and I had the clear awareness that no specific set of sounds, no verbal code was coming out of anyone’s mouth, although we were talking. We were exchanging meaning in its essential state. That is all I can tell you about it, except to say that it was really cool. Ironically, I have no other words to describe the sensation.

But the feeling that meaning is a kind of substance, albeit a quite slippery one, has stayed with me, and I can recall it at will. It is like the sun in that it illuminates the world, but it is difficult to stare at directly.

It is a resource that we waste with our thoughtless habits, our assuming natures, our rote and inattentive interactions with others. There are surely other ways to become aware of its existence besides learning a new code with which to express it, but language education is certainly a good trigger. In my next post I will discuss the way in which meaning should form the foundation of language education.

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