Psych Out


Freshman year of college, in Pyschology 101, the class did an experiment in language. The teacher played a recording of babbling babies and told us to match them up with their nationalities. The test was multiple choice: Swedish, Japanese, Russian, American, Algerian, Australian . . . It seemed a daunting task until telltale sounds emerged as dominant in each child’s vocalizations, be they guttural consonants, nasal twang or tongue clicks. At times there seemed no mistaking something as obvious as a Scandinavian lilt, yet at other times I hesitated. Was that the monotone punch of Hindi or did I just hear the guttural R of Arabic? When the answers were revealed, no one in the class scored over 20% because all babies, regardless of cultural origin, babble the same. They all experiment with every sound the human mouth can make and only gradually learn to focus their efforts on those that mimic the speech around them.


I never outgrew that infantile experimentation. I was permanently hardwired for language but didn’t realize it. As a child, I tried shading vowels bright and dark; I experimented with labials (the difference between m and n for example) and fricatives (like f and v); I tried pronouncing phonemes with abrupt beginnings and gradual slides into sound. I played with word cousins, repeating zzzipper – sssipper, think – thing, shoe – chew, got – goat, religiously enunciating each option three times as if a curse might befall me should I fail to do so. I now teach these distinctions, known as minimal pairs, in my ESL classes (English as a second language).


There is nothing so satisfying as doing the work you were born to do, but it took me a long time to discover that. When I began college, I was so insecure of my foreign language skills that didn’t continue the French I’d left behind junior year of high school. I felt outclassed by so many other freshmen who seemed to be already fluent. My insecurity was rooted in poor training, for despite a solid grounding in the basics, my last teacher was so bad she chased away all the classmates who might have taken French IV with me, so that class never ran. By the time I reached graduate school, it seemed too late to pick up language again, so I opted instead for the alternate requirement of statistics, despite a lifelong aversion to math.


Then my husband received military orders to French-speaking Switzerland, and I found myself in a six-month French immersion course where I became the star pupil. The subsequent overseas experience left me fluent enough that I went on to teach French for sixteen years. Fate has a way of finding us like that. Now, yo hablo español; parlo italiano un poco; and I’m confident singing in German and Latin.


Mind games. I can’t believe I was so reticent to tackle something I knew innately to be my forte. I had the gift but not the confidence because talent is something you’re granted but confidence is something you learn. What natural gift have you been denying?

The Time/Language Continuum

I love conversing with my grandson, not just because three-year-olds are so uncensored and amusing, but because he was so late in talking.  Now every sentence is a window into his linguistic mind, and I, as a language teacher, treasure each word puzzle.

His current conundrum is adverbs of time. For Mothers' Day, the ladies of the family went out for a couple hours to get coffee and manicures. It must have seemed ages to him at home with the men, for when we returned, he came charging to greet us with a grin that said he'd been patient but sure hoped we were back to stay. His actual words (which only I heard, being first in the door) were, "Is it still Mothers' Day?" 

I was charmed by this notion that a special day lasts only as long as the official celebration, and I believe the question proves how active his mind was during his prolonged silence. After all, isn't a birthday done when the party's over? 

Just as I was about to answer, his mother came in behind me and asked what he'd said. Rather than just repeating himself, he stopped and looked up as if to search his mental index of language rules. Then he cautiously rephrased the question. "Is it Mother's Day yet?"

The older I get, the more I understand this line of thinking. Each morning when I hobble on stiff feet to the mirror but see a youthful reflection, I wonder if I'm middle-aged yet or still middle-aged. After nineteen years of teaching, am I still a good teacher or am I a good teacher yet? Was I ever one or will I ever be?