A few months ago, I was sitting in the flat I was renting in Paris late at night, when my best friend from high school, Ben, sent me a message on Facebook, agonizing over the painful unfairness that is life in a totally privileged WASP-y kind of way.
He said to me, “Aimee, it’s not fair. How come I’m not allowed to fly a helicopter because I don’t know how to, yet people continue to use language despite having no understanding of how it works?”
I laughed. Ben was an avid lover of linguistics in school and his question made me laugh because I’ve always pictured that Ben would grow up to be a prodigious polyglot and world traveler, but that hasn’t been the case. Ben’s only fluent tongue is English. In high school, he and I had a very particular need to be able to privately communicate to one another and as a result, we decided to improvise our own language, dubbed Sperman. Sperman brought together elements of Spanish and Latin-based languages, which we both were studying and Germanic language, which I had some understanding of. This was a vast undertaking, developing an entirely new language--languages are not formed in a vacuum and to construct one artificially takes a lot of careful insight, planning, and consideration to be given to structure, syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics. It’s not something two 16-year-olds can whip together in a weekend.
We abandoned Sperman in favor of Esperanto. I studied it off and on throughout high school, regularly passing Ben notes reading only “Mi malamas vin.” (“I hate you.”).
So for the past 8 months, I’ve been turning it over in my head what it is about Ben’s question that bothers me and after months of having some very interesting experiences with language, some embarrassing if not funny and memorable, and I’ll share some of these... I think I know the answer.
Language is a public commodity. As with many things in life, it requires a fair amount of patience and exercise to conquer. You never truly conquer language... it grows with you and you grow with it. It is not something to have an elitist view on and every time someone rips on someone for poor grammar, as funny as it is in the moment, a little piece of becomes disenchanted knowing the effect it will leave on that person, their desire to keep learning, and overall, their self-esteem and sense of confidence.
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to overcome the fear of looking stupid to reach out, learn something new, and put it to use... and language is a very grand example of that. By picking up new language, by fine-tuning your understanding of your native tongue, you are empowering yourself to communicate and express yourself more earnestly, productively, intensely, and intimately with others... and that is a valiant thing to do, not to be laughed at.
So here’s a few stories about language.
1: Spanish is beautiful and leaves a dance in my head.
When I was young, my best friend’s family was from Spain. Her abuelita only spoke Spanish. She was old, alone in the world, and even when I was 7, I understood that she was at a point in her life where, even coming to a country where it is expected to know and speak English, that she wasn’t going to. Not because she was stubborn or a bad person. But because there was no one there to push her or help her overcome her fears , hesitations, and uncertainties. I realized that, given the amount of time that I spent over at my friend’s house, I needed to be able to have some basic communication with her abuelita: greetings and simple questions namely. I don’t believe in Noam Chomsky’s ideas on the language acquisition device, so I don’t think my young age gave me any kind of advantage. I just listened. I picked up on facial expressions and connected them to certain phrases. My friend was very encouraging and often would point to objects while speaking around me to help me understand the connection between a word and an object. Basic vocabulary started to settle, and everything else was grammar and the links that form that language.
Had my friend not been encouraging, had abuelita not had an inviting and warming smile, maybe I wouldn’t have picked up on Spanish, which is a beautiful language... as cheesy as it is, I love the words of Pablo Neruda and when I hear his works translated to English, I don’t think they have the same effect. Over the past year and a half, I have found myself writing erotic poetry in Spanish. It leaves a little bit of mystery, a little bit of dance, a little bit of wiggle and discomfort in your ears.
But what if someone had just told me, “You suck. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t even know how to use subjunctive tense correctly... look, you conjugated that in past imperfect rather than preterite... dumb. Go home, little girl.” And then a part of me that only comes out when I speak Spanish would never come out... a thread of communication in the world would be lost, great ideas left unexchanged... all because I never tried. How can you fault someone for that? You shouldn’t.
2: Esperanto gives me temporary arrhythmia
A while back, someone who I eventually came to fall in love with sent me a message over Skype one day. He ended the exchange with “Bonan Nokton,” not knowing I was familiar with Esperanto. Not knowing him very well at the time, I still oddly remember my heart skipping a beat because I was so overwhelmed to find another person who could appreciate the beauty of an artificially constructed language created largely to bring people together and fill a void where there is no common language. People say language is a glue. It is not a glue. It a salve, an IV fluid, a serum for thoughts, emotions, and ideas.
3: French makes people smile
Last summer, in Paris, I had to buy a mouse for my laptop. I ended up in a small little shop in 20e. A woman stood behind a counter and I requested, instead of “une souris” “un sourire.” The first is a mouse. The second is a smile. It’s a very subtle difference to the untrained ear, one I still have trouble hearing. The woman knew what I meant, but she decided to teach me a lesson. So she smiled. I asked again, she smiled even wider. Over and over. I was confused. She pointed to her smile. Eventually I realized I was asking for the wrong thing. She helped me and now, months later, I still remember this story. This simple exchange, the embarrassment of it, taught me something.
4: ASL is full of love
Last fall, I came to Austin. Soon after, I met my friend Brandt, who is profoundly deaf. He communicates, like hundreds of thousands of deaf Americans, through American Sign Language, but he still carries around a pen and paper to communicate through written English to people who simply have not taken the initiative to learn ASL. I was surprised, however, when I found out that his then-girlfriend now-fiancee had learned sign language in a little under a year solely as an act of love and devotion for him. Which I find to be fucking awesome. What if she had just turned away and said, “This is hard... I can just go find someone who is a hearing person like me?” She could have missed out. She could have never known this person she’s now marrying.
I started to learn sign language. I was frustrated by it at first. I have genetically deformed pinkies and I have trouble using them for signing. I also struggled with the brevity and succinctness of the language. I am a very bombastically verbose person who uses language in a very romantic sense... to find a language that doesn’t have signs for words like “bombastic,” I was disappointed!
But as I said, language doesn’t just grow with you, you grow with it. I had to drop my conventions of how language works and really pay attention to how ASL speakers express their emotions strongly... because when you think of an ASL speaker, you often have an image of power and passion... what is it that makes that come out? It’s force. And strength. When a deaf person signs, they don’t just “love” you... they “LOVE” you. They don’t just “love” to sleep. They “LOVE” to sleep. There’s grace and repose... there’s fine-tuning to each gesture to give it significance. If I’m pissed off that something is “slow,” I’m going to complain that it’s “SLOW.”
Last week, I was meeting with Brandt. We meet to practice once a week. I was very upset at the time, my heart felt heavy and like all I wanted in the entire world was a friend I could reach out to, a friend who I could speak my mind to. I was feeling a lot of disappointment and pain, and was trying to tell him that I felt “dumb.” In ASL, this is a gesture that involves you hitting your head. The more passionate you feel about it, the stronger it hits. I felt very, very dumb. I punched myself in the head. Brandt laughed. It physically hurt. I flinched after doing it.
I still can’t sign perfectly. I’m learning. My friend is patient. He knows I want to get better. He will repeat something 5 or 6 times as I sign, “AGAIN?” knowing I won’t learn any other way. What if I didn’t get that chance? ASL has changed me some. It has made me see for myself that written language alone is not enough... that body language matters... that the way you look when you say something can have the most dramatic impact on what is being said. And that all the fine lines in my face are telling their own story too.
What if I couldn’t fly that helicopter? What if I were limited to speaking English? What if I never got to fly high? I’d never know who I was.
Language is a beast. But it’s yours. It’s yours to fuck up. It’s yours to make the wildest, funniest mistakes with... and no one in the world can fault you for that and if anyone ever tries, they’re scared. Go fly a helicopter... you’re going to see some wild fucking shit. And it’s going to be awesome.