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gettin' down in a town that makes no sound

The discussion in class today got me thinking about my position in the whole "non-native speaker" situation. Normally I wouldn't even consider myself a n.n.speaker. I was born in raised in good ole Minnesota, and learned English just like every other American kid. My parents, although natives of India and fluent Urdu/Hindi speakers, knew English pretty well. (They should, they attended British schools growing up where speaking in any language other than English wasn't even allowed.) But that doesn't mean they stopped talking in Urdu at home. I can't remember when or how it happened, but I just kind of picked up Urdu at the same time I was learning to speak in English. Kind of like osmosis. I don't remember any specific teaching of the Urdu language, while English was pretty much an all the time learning process.

I find that kind of interesting, and it makes me wonder what my parents' intentions were in emphasizing English, if that is indeed what they were doing. Looks like some fodder for our next dinner conversation. And a possible subject to add into my paper...? Anyway, I still think the Urdu language was important to my p arents, and something they wanted me to learn, in conjunction with our culture. It seems like they just overlooked an "official" teaching of it so they could encourage my skills in English, since I would be growing up here in America.

Nonetheless, I picked up some Urdu along the way. I didn't feel like getting into my Urdu experiences during class, because it didn't really seem appropriate to launch into that recap of my life in a cultural context while we were talking about students and consulting and academic writing and learning ENGLISH. :) But that just means I have room to analyze it here in the blog. So, since English was really my first language, I guess I'm a non-native speaker in reverse. Here in America, I just can't seem to get into "Urdu mode." I feel like every time I start speaking in Urdu, it feels out of place or context. Conversely, when I'm in India, I am most definately in Urdu mode. It usually doesn't take me too long after arriving in India to get there, either. It's so much easier to become an Urdu speaker when you're immersed in the culture. I do, however, experience the embarrassment non-native speakers feel we discussed today in discussion. Mostly because my cousins like to make fun of my abuse of the Urdu language...I had bad experiences as a kid. Now that we're all older, and a little more mature, my family was really supportive of me trying to switch into Urdu from English. With that kind of encouragement, I was speaking as fluently as them by the time I left. It's nice to know people are capable of having that kind of effect on someone who comes into the Writing Center as a non-native speaker.

I was really surprised today when Kirsten asked me if it was difficult to relate my experiences in India to friends or other people here in America. I didn't even realize, but that was exactly the case. I thought I just didn't feel like talking about it, but really, it's because I didn't know what to say about my trip. Not only do we have a difference of languages, there is a huuuuge difference in cultures. Even things like my sense of humor and slang words (and some pretty dirty swear words) changed when I was there, learning and absorbing the culture and language all over again. I say "all over again" because I have to re-learn everything every time I visit India. Isn't that sad? I've seen many people assimilating to American culture after immigrating here, while still retaining a strong sense of culture. I think I'm aware of my culture, but it doesn't necessarily play a huge role in my day to day life. Other than, you know, people wondering where the hell I'm from and what kind of name is "Meher" anyway?! (It's Persian.) It's something I want to work on. My parents have even fallen into the trap, and we speak mainly English at home. It's time to bring back the brown.

Aaaanyway. Things I noticed about learning, or in my case re-learning, a language include trying subconsciously to form a language structure while relating it to the structure you are more accustomed to. For me the transition is obviously easier because I've been learning another language since I was a kid. For someone who isn't in the same position, I think it becomes more difficult to switch back and forth between your native language and your non-native language(s) structures. And a lot of times, it is also difficult to try and find a specific formula, if you will, of a language, because there are always exceptions to the rule at every turn. For example, English has the pronoun "it" while Urdu has no such concept. Therefore, things in Urdu have a gender. EVERYTHING has a gender. And things that are of a specific gender cannot be changed according to their actual gender (like a dog always has to be male, even when it's female.). After that, you discover that the rules of finding a gender for the noun do not always apply. See? It gets really complicated, really fast. Just like I imagine English becomes for a non-native speaker.

Another thing I noticed about learning languages: any second language you pick up is stored in a specific part of your brain. I actually have some evidence of this...a friend of mine majored in Spanish studies and told me that the languages you learn after a certain age, or after your first language, are stored in one part of your brain while your first language is stored in another. I remember an oral examination I was giving in my high school Spanish class, where I suddenly started going off in Urdu. When I finally stopped and realized what I had done, my teacher didn't even know what to say. I found myself doing the Spanish+Urdu thing a lot in my college Spanish course as well, except it was in my head instead of out of my mouth (and confusing my teacher).

Damn I'm tired. All that thinking...all that analyzing...I'm mentally exhausted. Thanks a lot, Writing Consultancy. Pffft. But in all srsness, I can't wait to continue this subject in class. SUCH a nerd.

love,
meherrr

Comments

"It's time to bring back the brown."

Holy crap; I think everyone in Appleby thinks I'm insane because I just started giggling like an idiot in front of this laptop. Well played.

I was always so bad in my Spanish classes; I still chuckle at the "proficient in Spanish" on my transcript. Not being able to get exactly want I want onto the page (or especially out of my mouth) drove me up the wall. I'm always impressed when I meet people who are learning English without having their frustration drive them to commit multiple felonies, because that's how I felt. (Arson seems like such a good release. . .)

Having languages stored in different parts of the brain. . .that makes a lot of sense, I guess. "Mental energy" is a consistently fascinating subject, and the idea of having to actually switch brain-modes is pretty exhausting.

Also: you can tell there are writers afoot. The lengths of these blog posts are most impressive.

I remember my Latin/Greek professor last year telling us that he knew that he'd mastered Greek or Latin as soon as he started having dreams in those languages--I thought of that as soon as Meher started talking about how her thoughts were different in Urdu. I wish I could just take language courses at the U, because...I don't know. We can't "speak" Latin or Classical Greek, and even when our professor reads it to us, we can't understand what words he's saying. We have to be looking at the words, and from there we can translate or read it aloud. I'd love to be able to "dream" in a different language, but my Spanish isn't quite that strong yet, and since I can't do anything but read/translate Latin and Greek, I suppose I'll have to wait until I can learn another language. Booooooo.

Maggie, you need to read this article from today's Times: Vigil for the Vanishing Tongue. I can't get over the many words for "two" in Nivkh.

Now can you guys see why I'm majoring in linguistics. This is the kind of stuff we talk about in class. The human capacity for language (the spoken part) is sooo taken for granted by people, until they can't communicate, then you just want to commit felonies (put the match down, sharkey). Mehar, you picked up Urdu at home because it was spoken in front of you. Verbal language is not taught to you, you innately acquire it (osmosis?). My parents didn't teach me to speak English (although they did teach me to read and write). There are cultures where they think its really dumb to speak directly to babies since they cant answer. They care for them and hug them and everything, but there is no direct speaking (and no baby einstein flash cards) and guess what, the children still learn their language. Where you store it in your brain varies. I forget the exact numbers but like 90% of right handers and 50% of left handers store it on one side of the brain, and the rest the other side. When you acquire a second language it can be stored overlapping the first, or on the other side, the third language can overlap or be separate. I know my Spanish and Italian are very overlapping and I'm working on extracting them from each other.
The reason we learn to speak better in immersion situations is because we are forced to actually speak it. Think of a little kid in Mexico - he doesn't learn Spanish by doing workbook exercises! He actually speaks and uses trial and error and gets a lot wrong until he can communicate. Maggie, I dont know about your Ancient Greek and Latin since it is all written and not spoken. That would be hard, more like math or science. Si quieren, empezamos a blogear en espanol. Parece que desean practicar. Pero el sentido de humor is dificil, es la ultima cosa que entiende de una segunda idioma. Tambien tenemos la tendencia de morph las palabras de Ingles. Es muy comodo y la estructura de ingles es muy flexible para eso. No se si siento comodo hacerlo en espanol. (If you want lets blog in spanish. It seems you guys want to practice. A sense of humor is difficult, it is the last thing you "get" in a second language. We also have a tendency to morph words in English. Its comfortable and English structure allows for it. I dont think i feel comfortable doing it in Spanish.)

On a somewhat related and more than anything, entertaining note: My step-mom is a professor in foreign languages and cultures here at the U's Grad School and she loves to tell this story to illustrate the complexities of growing up bilingual. The son of one of her colleagues grew up speaking English and Spanish at home. While playing with a friend his mother called out to him in Spanish "Where are you?" And he called back "Aqi" (here). When his friend asked him what aqi was, he said "It's that thing you use to open a door."

Sorry if my Spanish spelling is wrong.

Wow, I really like the way you blog, it's so you and creative. Hmm, hence see my "lack" of creativity in my blog for today. A good contrast, as well as good laugh! Take care!

Thanks, Meher and all the commenters, for continuing this discussion! I'm laughing and thinking hard, while wondering if a white girl who needs sunscreen to live at the 45th parallel (my people come from way north of here and speak a language so difficult I can barely speak 10 words) can "bring back the brown" (damn, I hope so!). Having grown up monolingual and tried rather unsuccessfully to learn other languages, I'm struck by the merging of those languages in my brain during moments of confusion, as Meher and Wendy point out. I remember visiting the Netherlands (where everyone speaks multiple languages), starting a conversation in Dutch, then slipping into English, then into French (my personal language of confusion, because I spent 6 pretty clueness months there), and then ending up with a tangled mess. But, never fear, the girl selling me flowers was seamless in her ability to switch between all three (too bad I didn't know German, because I'm sure she did). I'm all for a multi-lingual blog, by the way.