Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Speaking in Tongues at 2 1/2

OH to be 2 1/2 again!Well - theoretically anyway. Of course I haven't really the slightest recollection what it was like to be so extraordinarily small and new. But current observation of a niece does hint quite strongly that to be a 30-monther is to be in one's prime. At what other period is it possible to appreciate so fully the intense wonder of running from one room to another and back? It's the age when everything, or anything, is an original and endlessly amusing art form: bouncing, falling over, running, falling over, dancing, falling over, singing, and, above all, talking. This particular 2 1/2 year old is quite clearly in love with talking. She absorbs words and phrases without the slightest effort, like a plant taking in sunshine. Not that all she has to say is necessarily in a language hitherto familiar to the nations of the earth; but that is beside the point. If she hasn't yet found the conventional verbal means to make a particular statement, she has a plentiful stock of her own "words" to fill in the spaces. After all, one noise is as good as another. By these noises and chunterings she communicates very satisfactorily with herself. And, generally, others don't matter in the least. But playing with her grandfather a short while ago, she did suddenly notice that he was not always grasping the nuances of her private language. "I don't know what you are saying," he said. She stopped in her tracks and stood there, a momentary picture of flummox and frustration. Then she said, with pent up exasperation: "Oh! You don't understand my problem: I'm only 2 1/2!" I happen not to think that any two-and-a-halfer capable of such a remark has any "problem" worth mentioning - unless it is premature exposure to the worry-language which is the stuff of TV soap operas. Everyone in soap operas has a "problem" (and not just with their acting) - though few of them, it must be admitted, are 2 1/2-year-old psychiatrists. At the same time, it is perhaps slightly sobering to consider how very young a person may be when joined to the merry and insightful ranks of those who think they have problems. From the perspective of a larger number of years, however, it is difficult to imagine life experienced less problematically than it is by this small character. Will she ever again learn so much so quickly with so little self-conscious resistence? What happens later that makes learning become a chore or even anathema? To learn without knowing you are learning is the acme, and two-and-a-halfers do seem to have it down to a fine art. This is common enough knowledge, of course, but it is interesting to note that in Australia there is an effort afoot to teach a second language to children at exactly the same time they are automatically learning their first one - at 2 1/2. It is no trouble for these kids to speak Japanese as well as English: One noise is as good as another. As it is, lots of parents with different languages already endow their offspring with bilingualism, and why not? Why haven't educationalists learned from this? In Britain, most children do not encounter a second tongue in school until they are 11 or 12, and by the time they are 15, most have given it up. In the context of Europe as a whole, the British are notorious as obstinate monolinguists. Traditionally, when faced with a tricky situation abroad involving language, we simply speak our mother tongue louder. On the whole this blatant and inconsiderate technique has served us quite well. Arguably such language isolationism is a major factor in English becoming the nearest thing to the world's universal language: those who speak it can't be bothered to try speaking, or understanding, anything else. As with any rule, there are shining exceptions. My wife and I, for example, have twice now - with striking optimism - opted to swim against the native tide and take lessons in other languages: first French, and now German. When people go so far as to ask us why we have done this, a straightforward answer proves difficult. The French lessons happened because of a persuasive conversation I had with a Frenchman living in Glasgow who swore he could make us fluent in French in just a few weeks. His method was not a la textbook. He didn't drum vocabulary or grammar into his students. Ninety-nine percent of language learning is pure confidence, he argued. After all, he said, 2 1/2 year olds (ah!) learn languages with no difficulty at all. That was the clincher. He would teach us French as if we were 2 1/2. I may have forgotten to mention to him that I was taught French at school from age 7 to 18, and that those years had proved astoundingly fruitless: I couldn't even ask the way from the Louvre to the Centre Pompidou. Now, anyway, he had convinced me that I had simply been taught wrongly and too late in life. What I must do was revert to second babyhood. I think we may have been among the first to somewhat disprove his method. We did have a great time in these sessions, though, mainly because Philippe had (and needed to have) an unsquashable sense of humor. The one lesson I prized above all was the evening we spent simply making French gestures and (what we fondly imagined were) French noises. His message was that people never speak in completely rounded phrase, with subject and predicate finely tuned. Much of French talk is, he maintained, sounds of no particular meaning but suggestiveness. A wonderful and appealing notion. Speaking for myself, the one thing I did gain was a mad confidence that, however wrongly I spoke it, the attempt was the important thing. He made me believe that his fellow countrymen, contrary to all rumor and precedent, were likely to be as indulgent and forgiving as he was when my pronunciation and grammar were not apparently perfect. It is true that a number of unwitting French persons, in France, have since then, been unfortunate enough to act as my guinea pigs. Their reactions have been various. Some have been suffused with happy laughter. Some have looked - I feel - inexplicably baffled. One even praised my use of the glorious word "Execrable!" All have replied immediately, and without apparent resentment, in impeccable English. I think, on the whole, that they may have appreciated my gall. This appreciation could have been instrumental in making it easier for them to see that I shouldn't say anything further in their much- loved language. International relations, in a small way, have been thus improved. The German lessons are ongoing and altogether different. The teaching is quite formal, with a generous amount of grammar, though not with too much emphasis on absolutely correct pronunciation. We do a fair amount of good practical phrase making, like: "What is your name?" and "How do I find my way to the house at the top of this map, please?" and "Excuse me, I would like half a kilo of pomegranates, thank you." There are about 19 of us in this class, all adults. We address each other as Herr and Frau and find ourselves reluctant to use the familiar du. Some are earnest and conscientious, like Herr Leiser (who has German relations); some are embarrassed; some are quietly determined and receptive like Frau MacAlpine; some keep on hoping for the best - Herr MacDougall in particular. My wife, a primary school teacher, says she can recognize stock school-child characters in most of the members of this mature weekly German class. I, she maintains, am the class clown. While I dispute her characterization, it is true that virtually every time I speak German (with great solemnity) a general kind of shaking hysteria seems to overtake the class... . Could it be, I sometimes muse, because of my undying commitment to the notion that the best way to learn a foreign language is to simulate extreme youthfulness? But it isn't easy for some of us to behave like a 2 1/2 year old. The class doesn't seem to understand my problem.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.