In Pyschology 101, the teacher played a recording of babbling babies and told us to match them 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. 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 scored over 20% because all babies, regardless of culture, babble the same. They 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, hardwired for language without knowing it. As a child, I shaded vowels bright and dark; I experimented with labials (m and n for instance) and fricatives (f and v); I tried changing phonemes with abrupt beginnings into gradual slides of sound and found word cousins on the way (chew and shoe for instance); I relished the nuance between zzzipper and sssipper, thing and think, got and goat, enunciating each choice three times as if a curse might otherwise befall me. I now teach these distinctions, minimal pairs, in my ESL class. There’s nothing as satisfying as doing the work you were born for, but it took me a long time to find.
In college, I left foreign language behind, a victim of impostor syndrome and a bad teacher. By the time I reached grad school, it seemed too late, so I opted instead for statistics, despite an aversion to math, and then was sent abroad after six-months’ French immersion. Speaking it for two years left me fluent enough that I taught for sixteen more. Fate has a way of finding us like that. Now, Yo hablo español; Io parlo italiano un poco; and I sing in German and Latin.
Mind games. Talent is something you’re given but courage is something you learn. is there a gift you’ve been denying?