Saturday, March 17, 2012

Language Acquisition

Over the past year, I've made a half-hearted attempt at learning Spanish using Rosetta Stone. A malfunctioning computer coupled with a lack of time/energy to pursue the subject has hindered my progress, but I have made it through most of the first CD-Rom and can now understand and speak a little bit of EspaƱol.

The process of learning Spanish has done something else to my brain. It has sparked a bunch of memories... memories from many moons ago... in which a young Molly (that’s me) attempted to grasp her first language, English.

Sure I remember learning to speak. I even remember learning to walk. You'd think I'm crazy, but... well, I am crazy. It's still true. No, I don't remember uttering my first word, but I do remember the exact instant I learned the meaning (or double meaning) of certain words and phrases.

In the Rosetta Stone series, the language is taught to you by giving you some basic verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Once you've mastered a few of those, they throw in some conjunctions, modifiers, and then start making you crazy with the -o and -a endings and their whole Usted/formality crap. (It's crap. Seriously. There are at least four different ways to say "nice to meet you" in Spanish, depending upon whether you're a male or female, whether the person you're speaking to is a male or female, and whether the person you're speaking to you is a respected elder or a doofy kid/equal. Dah, just PICK ONE!)

My recollections tell me that my first-language acquisition happened in much the same way. It started out with a few words that I understood: Table. Food. Milk. TV. I could see these objects, I understood that a spoken word represented them, and (best of all!) I realized I could use them to get what I wanted.

Soon I was recognizing that words often came in strings called sentences, and sentences could pack a lot of punch. They kept your listener's attention for a wee bit longer, and they had more meaning. Instead of saying "TV" which a parent could translate as "Oh, yes, that's a TV!" or "Yep, televisions exist!," the child could now say, "I want to watch TV. Smurfs specifically." Communcation = improved! Misunderstandings = lessened!

Even after I mastered sentences, language continued to confound me in other ways. Inflections had little meaning at first. Sarcasm was taken literally. Idioms were taken literally. Analogies were a minefield. There were so many facets to understand beyond just the words themselves! Heck, I feel like I'm still learning, sometimes.

Thanks to Rosetta, my brain has recalled several childhood incidents in which my newbie English skills tripped me up or caused me great confusion. I thought I'd share some with you.

Word Association

One of my first moments of confusion, and I admit this one’s minimal, was as a very young thing, hearing the phrase “What’s going on?” I knew the word ‘on’ because I’d seen my mother pull a lamp chain and say “on”, “off,” etc., for my learning benefit. So when this person asked the above question, my mind went directly to that lamp chain.

Words With Multiple Meanings

-In Kindergarten, I thought I heard the teacher speak my name (it turned out he'd said the name of another kid whose name rhymed with mine), and I went over to see what he wanted. When I got there, the teacher looked at me with confusion and said, "Oh, did you think I called you?" To me, the word 'called' had exactly one meaning: dialing someone up and speaking to them on the telephone. So I was flummoxed. Well, I thought as I stood there, I remember my mom DID say that my teacher called our house one time to speak to her. So yes. The teacher had 'called' me. On the phone. That one time. So... I nodded. And the teacher smiled and told me to go back to my playtime. And I was horribly confused until I finally made the connection sometime later.

-As a youngster, we never discussed flatulence in my family. In fact, I'm pretty sure I never even noticed when it happened or even knew it was a thing until I got to elementary school, and some of the older kids would say this mysterious phrase, "passed gas," sometimes shortened to just "pass," and then point and mock. (This was the 80's. The word "fart" existed. I don't know why nobody used it until we were older. But anyway.) So somehow my brain connected "pass" with, you know, farting. (I'll just call it that. It's easier.) My brain also knew "passing" when it came to passing around food at the dinner table, and I understood that was different, but I think those were the only two contexts in which I understood it. 


1. On the last day of first grade, on the school bus, an older neighbor asked me if I'd "passed." Horrified, I said no. She was like "No? What do you mean? Of course you did. Didn't you?" I was offended. I had NOT done that disgraceful thing of which she was speaking! Turned out she just meant, had I passed first grade and been promoted to second grade? Oh, whoops.

2. A year or two later, our school counselor came to speak in our classroom. She gave us the spiel about how this was a safe environment, we could talk to her about anything, etc. She had a poster with a list of guidelines on it. Things like, "Everyone is important" and "Use positive words."  One of the guidelines, right there in black and white, was: "It's okay to pass. You don't have to say anything unless you want to." Hmmm, interesting, I thought. If someone passes gas, it's okay, and you don't even have to own up to it! This rule seemed kind of out there for this poster, but hey. I was glad she'd addressed it. So few did.

Words That Sound Like Other Words

-I was scared of our hairdryer because it was a brand called Big Shot. I thought ‘shot’ meant the same as ‘shock’ and that this hairdryer's goal in life was to electrocute me, even if I never even went near the bathtub.

-I thought Kraft macaroni & cheese was called cracked macaroni & cheese, and it sounded terrible. (But oh, was it delicious!)

Taking Things Too Literally

-I thought a honeymoon was a big, round, yellowish room, possibly in outer space, where husbands and wives went to sit around and make doe-eyes at each other. For snacks? Honey, of course. Sure, it all seemed a bit bizarre, but then again, so did marriage.

Those are the ones I can remember right now. If I think of more, and if they're halfway interesting, I'll add them here. But for now...  Es hora de cama. Necesito dormir. Like whoa.

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