Monday, June 25, 2007

Missing Chunks of Brain

A friend recently sent me a fascinating New Yorker article about an Illinois State professor's studies of a tribe whose language defies every accepted theory of linguistics. I've now decided that I want to become a linguistic anthropologist. There's only one problem: a chunk of my brain is missing.

I'm not sure if scientists have pinpointed this region as such, but I know exactly what it is: Linguamapaqua Lobus, the secret lobe that gives you the ability to understand foreign languages, not get lost, and swim.

I've recognized this handicap for quite some time, and it's time to admit the problem.

I failed swimming lessons thrice between the ages 8 and 18. Besides a stunning lack of natural buoyancy (which, when doing the crawl stroke, results in getting mouthful upon mouthful of clorinated water), I have a problem of veering off course, usually to the left. Eyes closed, face underwater, I am in a state of sensory deprivation. Nothing but H2O. No reference points. No idea where to go. If I were dropped into a large enough swimming pool and told to freestyle to the other side, I would swim in a circle until I drowned.

This condition, I am convinced, is somehow related to my general spatial incompetence. I can't think in three dimensions. I don't have the aerial view of the world that enables some people to never get lost. When driving, I always think I'm going north. After using the bathroom in a restaurant, I will always exit it to the right, sometimes into a kitchen or storage closet. I have no explanation for this.

I am convinced, however, that the aforementioned symptoms share the same root cause as my inability to learn foreign languages. I don't want to overstate this point. I got A's in Latin in high school, and I survived three total semesters of Italian and French in college without dipping below a B. But that was entirely based on my ability to read and write those tongues. When it came to understanding them spoken, and speaking them myself, I was an embarrassment to myself, my class, my instructors and my country.

The reason for my failure is this: When you hear a string of strange syllables spoken quickly and without pause, how does one know where one word ends and the next one begins? My brain cannot make this distinction. "Voulez vous couche avec moi" might as well be "voo layvook oosheyav ekmwa?"... which is quite unhelpful, especially in that situation.

This is merely the linguistic version of the disorientation I experience when being underwater or walking the streets of Rome (or a Minneapolis parking garage) for the first time. Nature holds more responsibility for this condition than nurture--I remember the relief I felt when discovering that my sister also assumes movement in a northerly direction--but that just adds to my feeling of helplessness.

Professor Everett in the New Yorker article can listen to a language he's never heard before, and in 20 minutes outline its basic grammar and structure. Oh, that I could do the same and fulfill my new dream of becoming the world's most famous linguistic anthropologist and living among the Piraha tribe of the Brazilian Amazon. Damn you, Linguamapaqua Lobus!

(Hey, I wonder if this lobe also regulates your ability to dunk a basketball...)


Stephen Dashboard said...

"voo layvook oosheyav ekmwa?"

Does it involve a trip to Sex World?

The Wordman said...

>The reason for my failure is this:
>When you hear a string of strange
>syllables spoken quickly and without
>pause, how does one know where one
>word ends and the next one begins?
>My brain cannot make this

I will crib the following comments from my wife the linguistic anthropologist: what you're describing is an early stage in the process of learning a language.

if you could stick with it long enough (and I suppose now is not the time to suggest "total immersion", considering that you're natatorially challenged), the next stage would be "mapping", where you start to recognize certain words and phrases, used in context, and map them to words and phrases you know in English; this is about the time the language stops sounding like gibberish (in my case, this was the point at which I started getting _really irritated_ when I heard English speakers trying to mimic the way Swedish sounds for laffs -- oh, the Swedish chef).

after that, it's a matter of building on your vocabulary through hearing it used in context. at around the same time the grammar starts to make sense pragmatically ("oh, I use this word with that one when I'm asking a question, but not when I'm ordering lunch"; "be careful when you say the word 'mashed potatoes,' as it sounds an awful lot like the c-word" -- "I would like a bowl of warm mashed potatoes" in mixed company is a verbal minefield waiting to be crossed).

the speaking part only comes after you've absorbed enough of the language, and that's a matter of personal comfort level and your brain dynamics -- could be that if you've got an "abby normal" brain for language learning and swimming, this might be where you really fall on your face.

but I don't think so -- you just haven't been exposed to enough immersion (that word again!) experiences to get past the initial, gibberish stage.

as for me, I've been studying modern Greek since 2000, and it _still_ sounds like gibberish. Melina Mercouri's one fine-looking woman, but what she's saying makes about as much sense to me as the sound of calimari flopping in a plastic bucket.