Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Somewhere along the line as I was growing up, the idea of "communication" took on great importance to me. I conceived the idea that if people could communicate, there would be less strife. I noticed early on that people had their own preconceived notions about things and automatically jumped to conclusions about others, excoriating or praising, based not on actual knowledge of those others' motivations but on conclusions, often wrong, arising from their own prejudices. I must have seen this phenomenon at work in my family; although I can't remember specific examples of this jumping to incorrect conclusions I do remember thinking it happened too much and those being opined about weren't being given a chance to explain themselves. People needed to work at communication, I thought; they needed to stop, listen, and learn. As a teenager, I actually developed the habit of writing down my analysis of people who struck me as odd so that I could process my understanding of them and why they were odd. (Did I mention that I was odd myself?) I wanted to be fair; I didn't want to make fun of them like everybody else did. This search for understanding became something of a holy grail for me.

The application to be a Peace Corps volunteer is like none other. You are asked the usual questions about background, skills, and interests, but even these nuts-and-bolts questions encourage free-form answers, with several lines under each question inviting you to expand. The last question is "why do you want to join the Peace Corps?" or words to that effect. It's called the "motivation statement" and can be as long or as short as the applicant wants it to be. I can't remember exactly what I said in mine (and, tragically, the original applications of my entire 1960s cohort of Peace Corps volunteers were lost in a huge warehouse fire many years ago), but I distinctly remember being grateful for first my chance to expound on my ideas about communication, and that the word itself occupied a prominent place in my statement.

Verbal skills seem always to have come as naturally to me as breathing. Nature or nurture? I'll never know. I'm from a family of singers, instrument players, writers, talkers and laughers. My mother taught me to read before I started school, and I took to it like a bird to the wing. It was only natural that foreign languages would fascinate me as soon as I was exposed to them. French and I clicked almost from our very first acquaintance, when I was in high school. I remember struggling for a semester or so, and then Édith Piaf's "Milord" came out. Suddenly I was a moth to Piaf's flame. I bought all the Piaf LPs I could find and joyously submerged myself. Over the summer between 9th and 10th grades, I got my hands on a French grammar book. Between that book and Piaf, I was for all intents and purposes fluent in French by the time I got back to school. I was completely fascinated to see that French people had the same sorts of experiences we had, the same concepts. The French way of describing these experiences and concepts, though, were slightly different from the English way, and the differences shed light on how the French experienced the world. And so I was not just learning a language, I was learning a culture, from the inside out. To me this seemed the ultimate in communication.

French was so easy for me that I hesitated to declare it as a college major--it felt like a copout. If I'd had any idea what I might do with a French major, I may have felt differently about it, but French was merely a tool that enriched my understanding of the world. I didn't want to teach it. Simultaneous translation at the U.N. would have been fun, but there were plenty of bilingual native speakers to do that job. (I did end up majoring in French in order to get some kind of degree, after spending several semesters floundering among "practical" courses of study that never piqued my interest.)

But mere impracticality never stopped me from pursuits I found compelling for some reason. I sought to replicate the rich experience I'd had with French by starting the study of German and Russian. Thus I was introduced to non-Romance languages and the profound differences between their structures and that of English. There was plenty of German pop music to help me learn that language, but college language classes weren't as intense as the daily ones I'd had in high school, and the teachers were not very inspiring. German was frustrating because of the sheer length of the words--reading it was mostly an exercise in flipping back and forth between the text and the glossary in the back of the book. German and I didn't get along, unfortunately. I had great hope for Russian--during the Cold War, if ever communication was needed between two cultures, those of the United States and the USSR were prime for sounding. I was fascinated with the Cyrillic alphabet and played with writing all my friends' names in it. I liked the sounds of Russian and how they were formed in the mouth. But Russian makes German look like child's play in its construction. Simply to say "hello" you need a four-syllable word. Declensions--the endings on words that change depending not only on their use in a sentence but indeed by how many of a thing you are talking about--were so complicated I began to wonder how the Russians could even speak to each other. They don't even use any form of the verb "to be" in the present tense. Instead of saying, "I am a teacher," they simply say, "I teacher." Articles don't exist; no "the," no "a." I know Russian babies learn this complicated language at their mothers' breasts, but it was completely incomprehensible to this "be, the"-based scholar. And of course even if Russian pop music existed during the dark Communist era, it certainly wasn't available in 1960s Lexington, Kentucky. I told my Russian teacher, an armored tank of a woman who, with her gapped teeth and pushed-up nose reminded me of nobody so much as Petunia Pig, of my interest in music and how Piaf songs had helped me learn French. I asked her to recommend something similar to help me learn Russian. "Zere EES no Rossian Piaf," was Petunia's doleful reply. To be fair, she did point me to an LP of Russian folk songs sung by a woman named Natania Davrath, a classical Russian singer with a ravishingly beautiful voice. I can still sing a few lines from many of those songs, even though the Russian language and I parted company many years ago. If I could ever find a CD of that record I would consider it a major coup...and of course, you'd hear some of it here.

I went on, through Spanish (easy), the Ashanti language Twi (deceptively simple but hard to use) and Portuguese (less like Spanish than you think). Threading through all of this language learning was my need to understand other ways of looking at the world. I never did come up with any professional application per se for this fascination with languages, but the core idea of communication has informed everything I've ever done and is so basic to my way of being that it's like a second skin. At work I was proud of my reputation as a straight shooter, someone you could come to if you needed an unvarnished, but nuanced, opinion. If you are telling me a story, I'll probably stop you at some point and ask, "why?" I am an enthusiastic consumer of discussion (as opposed to "talk") radio--I relish hearing experts on a subject calmly exploring differing views. If I do form an opinion about something, I want it to be as reasoned as it can be, and I am always open to more reason from the other side. (But it has to be reason!) Writing, of course, is part and parcel of this need to communicate, and any clarity I achieve in it springs from my need to understand and be understood.

I think the germ for this essay is in a video about the Free Speech Movement at the University of California-Berkeley that Eclecticity posted a few days ago. The original 1960s Berkeley FSM seems an exercise in cherubic innocence compared with what you see in the video of a recent attempt to recreate it. Everybody has megaphones now, so that we can be louder in yelling past each other. We have become a society of uncomprehending screamers. Our ideas are the only right ones! Blessed reason is lonely these days.

We are not communicating.


Kat said...

Go here:

Check out number 1114.

Ralph said...

Amazing, Kat! But it's the LP, which I already have and would leave me in the same boat I'm already in with all my other unripped LPs.

It's so sweet of you to have looked!

Jenny said...

Hey Ralph, I'm taking a break from unpacking boxes here at our house in Lac Le Jeune, BC to say hello--yes, we have made our retirement move and we are loving it!

I enjoyed your post today, being a language person myself--I enjoyed French, Spanish and Latin in high school and went on to major in French and minor in Spanish. My daughter is also a fan of languages and is fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese and has a very good knowledge of Italian. She is currently living and working in Sao Paulo. She has been fortunate to immerse herself in languages by studying, travelling and working in the countries where they were spoken. My ability with languages isn't what it once was, but I believe strongly that foreign languages should be a part of everyone's education.

Ralph said...

Delighted to hear from you, Jenny! Glad the trip went OK and you're busy beginning your new life.

I think if I'd stuck with just the Romance languages through college I may have had an easier time of it, but since I had no career goal in mind--I was just curious--I wanted the exposure to some of the other language families just to see what they were like (and Twi, of course, came via the Peace Corps). I couldn't agree more that foreign language should be a requirement at school, but that's a hard sell to the typical insular American.

Don't be a stranger, Jenny!

Mim said...

green with envy on your language skills. Living overseas with one language I felt indeed inadequate.I love that most other countries raise their children to be bilingual.
I know your language skills served you well in your other lifetimes you've lived. And communication.. that is a whole other subject to get into sometime.

Ralph said...

You're so right, Mim, and I really can't separate language from communication..the need drive towards one created a fascination with the other. I'm still that way, am endlessly curious about how a given language works.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post Raff. Sadly, I gave up Spanish twice and French once. Languages just weren't my cup of tea.

Ralph said...

Either fortunately or unfortunately for Americans, they don't have to be because our school systems don't emphasize them. In most other countries, a person can't consider himself "educated" until he learns another language. That should be the rule here, IMHO.