Being Fluent

As a linguist, I love languages.

I’m enthralled by the broad nature of language, and how, through its words, an entire people can be reflected.  I’m a big believer that language is the first introduction to into the nature of a nation, a culture, a people—and not only by their words, but by how those words are expressed:  through pitch and tone, through speed and tenor, through inflection, nuance, and accent.  In Haitian Creole, the lively nature of even the most mundane discourse is a reflection of the vibrancy of the people who speak it.  In French, the very even rhythm of the language hints at the balanced essence of a people who equally celebrate and lament both the joys and sorrows of life.  By contrast, the German language is a structured, tightly woven tongue that mirrors a highly ordered, logical people in thought and deed.  In Japanese, inherent to every syllable to be uttered is a note of respect that defines the culture itself:  respect for self, respect for others.  Even in the dead vernacular of Latin, the language exalts the virtue of man and all things masculine, which is very much evident in the historical accounts of the relationships of men to women.

Yes, languages speak to us about who we are as people, why we believe what we do, why we live as we do.

I find it wholly enchanting.

Even English, with all its variations and dialects, tells the story of the people who speak it.  In Britain, English is very refined and clipped, with a strong, almost condescending accent that suggests privilege and high culture (I mean that in the best possible way!).  Australian English is to me as feisty and rugged as its speakers.  And of course, there’s American English—my own native tongue—with its many accents and reincarnations that are a reflection of the varied and diverse of make-up of our citizens (this would be my own personal shout-out to my great country:  USA!).

Yes, language is the great bridge that broadens my worldview and acquaints me to people everywhere.

I tend to find that pretty cool.

It is also the great bridge that I use to bring people to my world.  Of the languages I know–I speak English fluently, dabble frequently in the Romance languages, flirt sporadically with the German tongue, and dream wistfully of the Cyrillic vernacular–I am also very proficient in one language that is not always so obvious:  the language of writing.

Okay, I’ll admit it:  I’ve written about this topic before but as a linguaphile, it’s a topic that I’m drawn to again and again.  The idea that writing itself is a kind of language appeals to me, for various reasons, and because I’m still a couple of hundred words shy of meeting my word count for this post, I’m going to share them with you (oh, no attempt at meeting the word count in that bit of dribble there, no sir…hehehe…)

One reason I’m always fascinated by this is that not everyone is fluent in writing.  Oh, sure, anyone can pick up a pen or pencil and scribble words and phrases, but not everyone can write to communicate a clear, concise message or tell a story.  If we understand that this is the function of language, than writing itself—in its own unique function as a language as opposed to being a vehicle for language—is no different if it serves the same purpose.  It doesn’t matter if what we’re writing is real or imagined, fact or fiction, speech or story—in order to convey the message, a person needs to be a fluent, coherent writer.  If you want to share your tale, even when writing, you have to “speak” the language, and you have to “speak” it well.

And yet, interestingly enough, the great thing about writing is that it’s never wrong.  The nature of writing is such that though its form may sometimes be incorrect (a clear indication that the writer is not yet “fluent”), its expression is always true.  There is never a false aspect to speech or accentuation or tone because when I think of writing as a language, I understand that this particular “language” is an extension of the human experience itself that is so broad—if not infinite—there really is no flaw.  I can create characters, scenes, or settings with any breadth of tone or speech I want, and although there may be mistakes in grammar or syntax or punctuation, my story elements are always as real as I imagine them to be, written in a voice that serves to characterize the writing itself.

And like with any other language I’ve ever spoken or studied, the more I work at it, the better I become.  My syntax improves and my vocabulary grows.  I gain more and more control of nuance and meaning.  My words develop a signature rhythm, a particular style, a certain je ne sais quoi.  I manipulate more and more different registers, from humor to prose to verse to essay.  The more I write, the more fluent I become.

Because when you love languages as I do, spoken or written, it’s all about being fluent.


The Language of Writing

I am a student of language.

In my own childhood home, foreign language was very much a vital thread in the fabric of our everyday lives.  My family is Haitian, so I heard French and Creole in my house all the time when I was growing up.  As a result, I think that my family experience made me very receptive to nature of foreign languages. When you grow up in a bilingual household, it’s very easy to see the world with a larger, broader view—as well as your place in it—than if perhaps you grow up in a monolingual one, especially if that language is part of the dominant culture.

As such, when I got a little older, I decided I wanted to be an interpreter.  I was going to stand between two foreigners and unite them through the vehicle of language, telling their stories, sharing their concerns, recounting their fears or or exalting their joys. I had all these great, dreamy notions of living in New York City and working at the UN, meeting exotic people, and speaking a multitude of foreign languages, much to the amazement of my peers and the friends of my social circle.

But beyond the lofty goals I envisioned for helping others bridge their communication gaps, for me personally, I loved the idea of communicating with people from all over the world, in their respective language, and sharing a piece of their lives and their world that was so different from my own.  I imagined myself sitting in cafés in Paris, sipping on an espresso and watching les français stroll by, with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop.  Or I’d be lounging in a tapas bar in Spain, flirting with a dark-haired, dark-eyed Antonio Banderas-type (figure Antonio Banderas as he was in Desperado), secretly planning my wedding to this swarthy, sexy caballero.

I’ll be honest:  I just thought it would be pretty fucking cool.

Well, I didn’t quite realize that dream.  That’s not say that I didn’t try—I most certainly did.  When I was in college, I studied five foreign languages:  Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Portuguese.  My studies granted me an opportunity to travel abroad and I was fortunate enough to study in France and Japan.  My travels did afford me the chance to realize part of my dream:  I did sit in those cafés in France, and while sipping on café au lait, I got to flirt with a lot of Spaniards who happened to be there learning French.

Go figure.

And in Japan, my eyes were opened to a world of wonder—there’s no other way to explain it.  The country was pristine, immaculate perfection.  The landscape of the country was manicured  flawlessness.  The careful art of bonsai really seemed to describe an entire people:  small, careful, beautiful, rich.

And through it all, the real focus of my dream manifested itself everyday, no matter where I was:  I was communicating with people from around the world, sharing bits of history and culture, food and fun, life.

I told stories of my world in the language of my hosts, and I listened to them regale me with their own stories in my language.

So it wasn’t a total loss, my dream.  If anything, I took my first steps forward.

But like with anything, sometimes life gets in the way.  I got a job, then I got married, and then I had kids.  A life abroad with three kids began to seem farther and farther out of reach, and I think I kind of let my dream go.  Not with any regret, mind you, but more out of a sense of necessity.  Interpretation is not a profession that is in high demand in this country to begin with, and living in the Deep South, it’s almost non-existent.

Such is life.

But one day, I picked up a pen and I began to write.  Not in French or in Spanish.  Not in German or Japanese or Portuguese.  But in English.  In the language that I had mastered long ago.

I wrote stories and I then I dabbled in verse.   The words seemed to pour out of me, as if I had opened floodgates that were holding back an ocean of water that I didn’t know was there.

I created worlds and characters and events and lives, and then I shared them with the world (a small world, I readily admit, but I have hopes that that world will become ever larger).  And as I wrote, I made an accidental discovery.

My dream had returned to me.

When I was younger, I aspired to communicate with the world through foreign language, but that opportunity would slip through my fingers.  But through my writing, the opportunity had re-presented itself to me.  I could still communicate with the world, only the means of delivery was different.  The stories may not be true, but they were engaging, nonetheless, and they captured a slice of life that could be given to another for their own personal inspection, whatever their perception.

I wonder sometimes why I didn’t see it before.  The language of writing is as complex as any other foreign language that I have ever studied.  Of course, there is the technical side:  the grammar, the mechanics, the study of function and form, syntax and process.  But there is also the creative side of language, where the technical aspects merge with creative thought and expression to deliver messages, ideas, or even…stories.

I can’t believe now how easy it was.  Certainly, the language was unexpected.  It never occurred to me that while using English I can still interpret, only instead I’m interpreting life events through writing, because let’s face:  much like live interpretation, storytelling is just taking an event and retelling it in a way that you see fit.  Granted, when I write, I clearly have more leeway to bend the facts as I wish them to be, but nonetheless, I still get to play with words, manipulate meanings, fool around with syntax.  As I write my stories and scribble my verses, I tweak tone and intonation, meaning and nuance.  And I love it.

I’m realizing that writing allows me to do the one thing that I always wanted to do:  experiment with language.   My dream was never really gone from me; in fact, it was always there, lurking in the recesses of my mind, just waiting for me to make this connection.  And now that I have it back, I think I’m going to do everything I can to realize my dream to its fullest potential.

Warum nicht?