Tag Archives: language

Language and Psychology

They say we are what we eat, but is it also true that we are what we say?

As I sit here pondering how to integrate all our techniques for grounding and calming, how to develop habits to overcome my tendency to panic and to face life with an attitude that results in capable, adult handling of situations rather than my usual babyish crying and tantrum throwing, I am reminded of how the English language might affect us.

Often, I am afraid.

In French, J’ai peur.  Literally, that means “I have fear.”

In Spanish, Tengo miedo.  Literally, “I have fear.”

How come in English I AM afraid?  I AM the fear?  When you HAVE something, isn’t it much easier to get rid of it?  Race down the highway and toss it out the window?  Bye bye fear?  I have fear in my pocket, pick it out and throw it in the trash.  Worst case scenario, I throw out the pants.

I AM afraid.  That’s part of my being.  That’s essential to my existence.  I AM Elena, I AM a Mama, I AM afraid.  

I can say, I FEEL afraid or I EXPERIENCE fear, I suppose.  But that is not my go-to expression.  No, I AM hungry, tired, overwhelmed, sad.  Okay, none of those things right this minute, but I just mean when I feel something, I AM it.

At least in Spanish, they may say “I am sad,” but they have two forms of the verb “to be,” one indicates a temporary state, one is a permanent state of being.  Guess which one is used for emotions?  They give themselves a way out!  Do we?

Does our use of verbs have any psychological effect, or AM I just trippin’?

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Understanding

“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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Class update

The two students who showed up were great, but unfortunately they were also at opposite ends of the language experience spectrum.  So I need to split them into two groups… two groups of one!

My problem is I’m a hard worker, a good idea generator, a good teacher, good at communicating in three languages, but I don’t know the first thing about advertising and I really don’t want to have to learn.

Sometimes I resent the fact that I am supposed to handle so many aspects of a situation instead of being able to focus on something.  

But I guess that’s what happens when you strike out on your own.  If you stay on the beaten path then you have some pre-established means of assistance to take care of some of the more mundane, less interesting aspects, like getting the word out.  But when you begin to forge an alternate route, you spend a lot of time trying to reinvent the wheel.

So far, it is worth it to have the freedom and control to do it my own way.

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Language class

Tonight’s the big night.

I managed to get approval from the recreation center to use one of their classrooms, I worked up a good curriculum, and I have two people who say they will come, three if you count the rec center director who wants to sit in.

Not the resounding success I had hoped for, but ya gotta start somewhere.

I suspect that this particular class will go the way of the writing groups I have tried to start in the past, which is nowhere fast.

But I have come up with several positive points to dwell on so that I don’t get discouraged:

  • Scheduling this class, whether it flies or not, gave me the incentive to put together a few weeks worth of conversation class curriculum, something I have wanted to do for a couple of years but always stopped myself with the thought, why?  What particular group of students am I directing it at?  etc.  Planning this class has focussed me enough to get it done.
  • Perhaps I will impress the director with my class packet and my teaching style and he will list my class in the next rec center schedule, which may generate more students than my pitiful few fliers around town
  • I will have put the wheels in motion  (As Mary Poppins says, “Well begun is half done.”)  This includes having the incentive to buy a dry erase board with necessary accoutrements, ten-sided dice (for practicing numbers), and to make a picture file for use in demonstrating vocab/generating conversation.

I know it sounds like I’m being negative in my assumption that this particular class won’t go anywhere, but I have a list for that too:

  • I feel more comfortable assuming the worst, and being pleasantly surprised when things don’t completely suck
  • It feels more emotionally responsible to see this as the first small step/attempt and not set myself up for crushing disappointment by thinking, “This is it!  It’s this or nothing!”
  • I feel like evaluating things realistically is the only way to figure out how to succeed, to know what is working, to change the things that don’t work

None of it feels like work to me.  When I come up with activities, worksheets, dialogues, conversation starters, etc. I do not feel the effort required but am carried away by my enthusiasm and interest.  I find myself looking forward to this kind of work.  In fact I have to be careful to remind myself that it is important, because I tend to put it off too long the way I would set aside reading a book or watching a tv show or any other form of entertainment that must wait indefinitely because I have to cook and clean and mind the kids.  That’s how much I enjoy planning a class.  If that isn’t the ultimate in nerddom, I’m not sure what is.

So we shall see what comes of it this evening.  If there is anything of interest to report, I will write a post about it tomorrow.  Otherwise, I will write a post whenever I get to step two!

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Tutoring

I just got my first tutoring client in our new town, and it’s going to be a short gig.  This kid’s too smart to need me for long.  Just needs a little confidence-building and he’ll be off and running.

But just a couple of sessions is enough to remind me of how much I love it.

When you teach, you have to try to gear the material to EVERYONE, an impossible task but what else are you going to do.

When you tutor, you do whatever they need.  If you can tell they need everything written down to be able to process the information, then you write it.  If you hear one or two recurring pronunciation errors (I tutor languages), you point them out.  If they need you to repeat certain things or jump over that one part or remind them of that thing they keep forgetting… you can be whoever and whatever that student needs.  Do they need you to walk them through the whole exercise?  Do they just need a nudge in the right direction?

I love the fact that everyone learns differently.  I love the challenge of figuring out what a student needs and how I might phrase something so that it makes sense to them.

I remember when I was in grade school and a teacher would explain something and a kid would ask a question, and I could always tell that there was a crossed wire between what the teacher said and what the kid heard.  So how did the teacher answer?  Most of the time: repeat exactly what they said the first time.  I knew, if they just tweaked it, came at the answer from a slightly different angle, this kid would get it.

I love to look at things from all possible angles, walk around some theory or rule or bit of information and investigate it for leaks, holes, or undiscovered treasures.  I love to be able to rotate the invisible gem and make it magically appear for someone who wants to see it.  I love to try to connect that particular piece of the world to all the others, try to fit together some big picture so we might Get It.

The best and worst case scenario in tutoring, I find, is when the student is really inspired by the subject.  Best case, because it is a total joy to watch them drink in the material, so satisfying to realize that they are listening to things I point out and that they put into practice almost everything we cover, so validating that someone else likes to study the subject I’ve devoted so much of my life to.

Worst case scenario because, like my current student, they don’t really need me.  The usual case is the concerned parents see a test score that went amiss for whatever reason and they panic a bit and want to make sure things aren’t heading in the wrong direction.  I provide a couple of sessions worth of support, a few study hints, some guidance to additional resources, and these kids will be able to fly solo.  They want to.  Like I told the parents the other night when they asked for my assessment of their child’s abilities, I don’t want to talk myself out of a job, but honestly, as long as he keeps up with the school work, he’ll do really well.

I’ll just sit here and hope that a few more come along for me soon.

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An update from outside the box

I realize that starting a business is technically NOT considered operating outside the box.  Probably more like creating another box, really.  My box is going to have to fit somewhere inside of or at least next to other boxes already in existence.

But I’ve never had a box before.  I feel like a toddler who, upon opening an awesome new present, only wants to play with the box.  Mostly because there isn’t much inside my box right now, there’s pretty much only the cardboard walls and a couple of flaps to twiddle with at this point.

What happened was, I went to the local rec center to propose a Spanish conversation class, and the director loved the idea.  He gave me an instructor application which I brought home and proceeded to fill out.

Turns out I need a license from the city.  

So okay, I look up “business privilege license” on the web (“privilege:” presumably they don’t want you to forget that earning a living is not a right) and get to the appropriate form which I download and print.  I dutifully begin to fill in the blanks on that form.

Turns out I need something called a “Federal Tax ID,” which I again look up online and am directed to the IRS site on which one may get an “Employer Identification Number,” which is essentially starting a new business and getting the little number that you will put on your tax return.

The really cool part about all this is that it was fun.  I’m learning that I know when I’m on the right track when my enthusiasm mounts rather than dwindles as I encounter twists in the road.  Instead of sobbing hysterically and wailing “Why meeeeee?” in my most pathetic voice, which is my M.O. when ambushed by red tape, I was getting jazzed.  My own business, huh?  Pick out a name, pick out some goals, allow your inspiration to coalesce around a box, inside which you can put your brilliant ideas, then your efforts, and maybe someday your accomplishments?

Yeah, alright.  Let’s do it.

It’s still only in the embryonic stage.  If I showed you the ultrasound it wouldn’t even look like a box, it would just be a lump in the form of a tax identification number stuck to a dream.

But someday maybe it will be a lovely strong box, oak, perhaps stained a warm brown in homage to the cups of coffee that inspired it, with forest green trim, and it will have little ribbons connecting outward to tutoring clients and language classes, to translation jobs and writing projects, and it will be bubbling happily with words.

That’s the plan, anyhow.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Translation: The Ultimate Word Puzzle

I’ve started a new project that I’m liable never to finish, similar to most of the brilliant ideas I get.  I recently finished reading a book called “L’Oiseau de France” by Jean Jaussein, and I’ve now set about to translate it.  It is set in WWII and tells the story of a French soldier held prisoner by the Nazis.  

Surprisingly, it has a comic edge to it, not in subject matter but just in the way he tries to lighten up his description of the characters and the sometimes humorous things they do as they try to deal with their situation.

The writing style reminds me of Hemingway in its simultaneous depth and simplicity, which I always admire.

I am intrigued by the idea of trying to translate the slang of the period.  I wonder, should I use British or American soldier lingo from this era?  There is something distinctly false about substituting another culture’s slang for the original, since slang is such a personal form of communication that is quite rooted in a specific time and place.  But it would give the anglophone reader an atmosphere of WWII.

My main dilemma, as I work my way through page 3 of the original text, is that I still am not sure if there is already a translation published.  Not that anyone would publish mine, (not that I will even finish it!), but it would make it more fun to think that publication is a possibility.  I’ve looked online and come up with nothing.  About a week ago I emailed the publisher to inquire about the existence of an English version.  So far no response.

So until I find an answer, I will pretend that I am the only one, and I will gleefully struggle over every word, concentrating my mind not only on the true meaning of the work but also on the nuance of each phrase, the intention in each line of dialogue, never neglecting the suggestive importance of even a single definite article.

I am always aware that I hold in my hands someone else’s art, something they too must have struggled over and wanted to get just right.  And then when they’ve got it as close to perfect as it can get, someone wrecks it all by putting it through a mental wringer and squeezing it into a new-sounding shape that supposedly represents what they meant to say if only they’d been speaking that other language.  

How rude!

But I love it.  I love to teach people to understand another language so they can read it for themselves, but failing that, I love to bring a really great text a little bit closer to a lot more people.  And I love that this involves a brute force wrestling match with meaning itself.

Unless you too are a language aficionado (translation: nerd), you have not an inkling of the giddy, delicious fun of which I speak!

Trust me, dude, it’s awesome.

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Think Big

Occasionally my fantasies include teaching a high school English course.  (Is there any greater admission of nerdhood?)

I imagine how I would present the all-important lessons designed to develop a rich vocabulary, vital not only because an enhancement of one’s lexicon is generally recognized as a key to increasing intelligence, but also because I totally dig words.

Having a wider range of vocabulary seems to be especially vital in our modern world where language as dictated by pop culture becomes formulaic.  “I’m lovin’ it!”  LOL   BTW,  “Don’t just buy stuff- do stuff.”  

However, despite its power, vocab seems to be almost universally hated and resisted by students.

Perhaps a handout would convince them:

Reasons to apply yourself to the study of vocabulary:

  1. To impress your girl-/boyfriend’s parents
  2. To impress a potential employer
  3. To be able to understand people who are smarter than you, or think they are, who are trying to manipulate you in person, in writing, or in a speech
  4. To think deeper thoughts

Though I know the students would categorically refuse to be persuaded by any amount of reasoning, I myself find the last reason to be the most compelling.

Peter Gabriel expressed the idea on his album, “So.”

“The place where I come from is a small town/they think so small/they use small words/-but not me/I’m smarter than that/I worked it out/I’ve been stretching my mouth/to let those big words come right out”

No offense to small towns. I’ve spent some good years in a few small towns.  But you have to admit the perspective tends to be on the narrow side.  Though I believe the song has a sarcastic, almost satirical edge, still there is a grain of truth — when you use exclusively small words, you tend to think small, that is, shallow thoughts.  There is no nuance to the representation of your ideas, if indeed they are ideas and not just thoughtlessly repeated cliché.  IDK  “Live well.”  WTF

In his novel “1984” George Orwell told of Big Brother who sought to abolish “Oldspeak,” which is English as we speak it.  “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought… should be literally unthinkable… Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

Students who refuse to learn “big words” are unwittingly participating in this narrowing of thought; with fewer shapes to use, when we fit the pieces of life’s puzzle together, we can only create the same old tired designs.

Thus we must encourage the enthusiastic scholarship that seeks to master the utilization of a cornucopia of expressive terminology, that our most intimate mental machinations may emerge fully illuminated.

Or else, we all may as well speak in trademarked slogans with our brains turned off.

OMG.  Just do it.

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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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Hot Dogs

Why do we call them “hot dogs” and expect kids to eat them?

One of the first words my daughter learned was “hot,” which of course was associated with “No!”, “Don’t touch!”, and “Run for your life!” So when a plate of food was set in front of her and Mama said, “Blah blah blah HOT blah!” she would certainly have nothing to do with it.

Then she learned what “dog” meant, with its close ties to “kitty,” “bunny” and “dolly,” so as expected she looked at me with horror when I suggested that she eat one.

Two strikes, in this case, and you’re out.

I’ve started to call them “weiners,” a la Oscar Meyer.

We shouldn’t run into any trouble there for a while.

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A Passion for Words

Though my interest is often piqued by all kinds of subjects, my biggest passion is for words. I’ve always enjoyed writing in many genres, although I have come to hate the literarily analytical essay, in the same way as if I had forced myself for years to eat chocolate at times when I had no inspiration to do so, and was prevented from eating chocolate when I craved it, I would certainly have come to despise chocolate.

Here is where I come to the heart of what “unschooling” means to me: learning that becomes effortless because it is borne on a wave of curiosity and desire.

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