I thought of treating you to a fairy tale today. This is a fitting post for the day: I’ll be talking about children and about growing up, and I’m celebrating an anniversary – or rather a mensiversary. It is exactly one month today since this blog came to be.
My tale is a cautionary one. It is about what happens to language skills when disobedient little children insist on turning into adults, and so get punished by having language gifts turned into language handicaps. Here it is.
Little Perfect-lingual and the Big Bad Funny-lingual
Once upon a time, we were all children. Our minds were like wide-open windows, the windows of opportunity, through which languages flew in and about in droves, unfettered, unencumbered, free to imprint our avid synapses with perfect grammar, vocabulary and, not least, accent. Pragmatic, discoursal, social and other generally functional uses of language, which have no business in traditional assumptions about what languages are all about, have no business in this traditional tale either.
The windows fluttered ever so gently at the gentle touch of ever more languages, whose gentle glide itself kept them opening wider and wider. Languages were growing within us. We could make ourselves understood to anyone around us, about anything that mattered to us. We were praised on our linguistic accomplishments. Life was good.
But we were not content, little rascals that we were. We had to go and grow up. For sure, we couldn’t have known, because nobody told us, that the windows had sneaky inbuilt switches that would seal them shut forever as soon as we gave signs of wanting to get rid of childhood. Even if someone had tried to tell us, how could we seriously believe that human brains suffer from scheduled power outages? We didn’t know either when the short circuit would strike. Then again, neither did those who subscribe to brain shutdown. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the windows would be gone and, alas!, the opportunity with them. We had missed the boat. We would never again be able to learn languages.
To prove that we were indeed past the best-before date, and that the people who say so always know best, jealous adults then stuffed us in square rooms with square furniture, crammed us in square rows of other hapless waifs, facing a square whiteboard. To add to our torment, they forced pens and paper and books into our small hands, that had hardly outgrown nursery toys. And then they told us: “You are going to learn a new language!” Or: “Open your book and read!” Or: “Now look at what I’ll write on the board and copy it onto your exercise books!” Or: “Now memorise this list of words and this list of grammar rules for next time!” Or: “Now translate these words into your old languages, so you learn what they mean in your new language!” Or: “You are going to be tested in your new language!”, over and over again.
We did try, meek and vanquished that we now were. We wanted to be grown-ups, good grown-ups. But no matter what we did, the shocking realisation struck us, over and over again: we sounded funny, we couldn’t speak those new languages at all. We couldn’t in fact do anything with them except recite from our textbooks, to compare sizes of dollhouses that were drawn there, or to talk about cartoon dogs that were lying under tables. Some of us didn’t even know what a dollhouse was, and some of us had never, ever, seen a cartoon dog under a table. We had no idea what we were talking about, and we had no idea why we should be talking about what we were talking about. Life was not good any more.
We did remember, sometimes, but the memories grew faint. Languages were not like that, we longed for mum and dad and grandpa and sister and auntie cuddling us, and friends and neighbours and everyone being nice and good-humoured around us and talking to us all the time, talking all the time about things that we cared about and they cared about, all the time in those old languages that we didn’t even notice we were learning.
Our bewilderment eventually gave way to insight: that’s what growing up is all about too. They were right, of course. Language classes are there to teach you languages, or they wouldn’t be there. Adults know best: we couldn’t learn new languages because we ourselves were not new any longer. The blackout was come, the windows were no more, and this is why we all came to use our new languages
Disclaimer: Any similarities with characters and/or goings-on in real life are purely coincidental. This is, as said, a fairy tale.
© MCF 2010
Next post: Age, decay, and missed opportunities. Wednesday 17th November 2010.