Not Just Words

I spent my productive years immersed in language. I taught English as a Second Language and college and university writing and business communication. All this happened in San Diego.

I have also studied languages. I’m pretty proficient in two other than my native language — Spanish and Italian — and I can manage travel in a third, German. I studied Homeric Greek, and I was once fluent enough in Mandarin to live a year in China. Use it or lose it, but I can still tell when the English subtitles in a Chinese movie are off. I prefer the “direct method” or “total immersion” for learning languages, and Rosetta Stone was great for studying German.

I spent a lot of time in discussions about language and arguments (yes!) about what language actually is during the years in which I taught English as a Second Language. My contention — based on my experience — is that language is a tool for communication that doesn’t have to be all that precise in order to work. The contention of my linguistically trained colleagues was that language is grammar.

I think both of us were right, but I still think I’m more right. I had many students who were so intimidated by their mistakes that they wouldn’t even try speaking English out in the real world of hot blond girls, cute surfer guys, margaritas, and the beach — everything they’d come to California FOR. It was sad. The hot blond girls would’ve thought the guys’ accents were sexy and their mistakes would’ve been a way for them to make contact. The cute boys would’ve been enchanted by the “shy” Japanese girls, but never the twain did meet.

Language is not just words between sentient beings. Whenever I go out to langlauf, I meet the snow via the bottoms of my skis. The whole time I’m listening to the snow and feeling it so that I can move through it safely. It’s very expressive. We haven’t had a real snow fall since January, so the snow is also no longer, really, snow. It’s been frozen and melted and packed down and covered with an inch of fresh stuff now and again. It’s been skied on by skiers other than me, skiers with different techniques than mine. So, when I put my skis down and step into them, the first couple of “steps” are a polite introduction, “Hi Snow. How are you?” Quite literally.

So far it has responded with, “Hi Martha! You’re here! Yay!”

Most of all — in any language — is meaning. I thought of that yesterday after my walk with Bear which ended in an exchange right out of a children’s book. There’s a new family in the hood and they have two very cute little kids, around 5 or 6. They’re very friendly with amazing social skills, already adept at the local favorite activity of “visiting.”

I talked to them yesterday on my walk with Bear. It went like this…

“Hi Bear!” they yelled from their yard. Bear and I were walking in the street. The alley is now pure mud.

“She can’t talk,” I said.

“Why?” asked the little girl.

“She’s a dog. Wait. Bear, sit.” Bear sat and I lifted her paw and made her wave. The little girl waved back.

“What are you two doing today?” asked the little boy. 

“We took a walk.” I said. I have a pulled muscle and didn’t want to go to their yard for a visit because it would involve tromping through snow and being pulled by Bear. But… “Do you want to say Hi to Bear?” I asked, hoping they didn’t, but I knew better. The kids jumped up and down. 


So we went to see them. Bear jumped on the fence, happy, but that always startles them. They stood back about 18 inches and we visited about things. The boy had a stick.

“Is Bear the kind of dog that likes to fetch?” he asked. 

“No. She likes to lean on me and visit you and meet people and go for walks. That’s about it.” 

The kids had actually been throwing the stick in their yard and fetching it, pretending they had a dog. 

“We have a kitty,” said the little girl.

“What kind?”

Much inarticulate language coming forward. The little girl has a speech impediment. I nodded seriously, as if I understood. “I had kitty once. He was little, gray and fluffy and he had only half a mustache.” I pointed to my upper lip to show them where Reggie’s mustache had been.

“That’s funny,” said the little girl.

“It was.”

“Our old cat died and some others just went away.”

“Cats do that,” I said philosophically.

“You’re right. They do,” said the little boy.

Then Bear got distracted and I said, “I guess Bear’s done visiting.”

“OK. Bye Bear!” 

“See you next time, guys!” I said, as we walked away.

They waved until they couldn’t see us any more.

A LOT was communicated in those five minutes that was never spoken in words.

7 thoughts on “Not Just Words

  1. That was interesting. You come from the other direction as me as you know the intricacies of the english language. English was never my big thing at school.I did get a couple of pieces in the school magazine but it was one of those lucky days for me. I never really bothered about the details so much, but I think I have learned more now from blogging than from school.

    • That makes sense to me. I’ve seen school kill more students’ interest in English and any other language than I’ve seen students inspired by school to love language and be interested in it. The way you learned Swiss German is exactly how I think language is best learned. I was really happy when I was in CH last that I understood the train announcements, waiters in restaurants, and even, by the end of the trip conversed with my friend Rainer in German and neither he nor I noticed I’d switched over. That was a great moment. But I haven’t practiced much since I got back.

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