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Language Acquisition and Writing

So much of what we write is taken for granted. We use our vocabularies, our figures of speech and yet seldom connect our history with those two entities. We don’t look at where our speech comes from or who taught it to us, really. Unless, of course, as teens, we experienced discomfort when listening to our families talk with our friends.

I never experienced that, but I knew those teens who did. Many of the psychology persuasion argue that our personalities and capabilities have already been formed by the time birth occurs. I won’t take up that argument. I didn’t take a Ph. D in that subject. Others also argue that language ability may well be determined by the time birth occurs. Some posit that a fetus has been “programmed” for language, “hardwired” in fact, while in utero. Studies just released seem to have proven this theory. The results of these studies wait to be replicated.

Therefore, if we are programmed for language before birth, are we also programmed for the extent of use of that language and the ease of acquisition of addition languages? That question has yet to be answered.

A young writer friend of mine is a case in point. She developed before birth while within one language culture. Her family left that country while she was a babe in arms and moved to an English-speaking country. Her first official language was English. Here’s where it gets tricky. Her parents still spoke their native tongue. So, in truth, she grew up learning two languages simultaneously. Not such an amazing feat, really. European kids do it all the time. Multi-lingual households seem to be the norm in Europe.

After years of hearing or studying languages in life and school, she became an excellent example of multi-lingual. She still learns languages so that she can read in the original tongue and gather the true flavor of the speech, intent, meaning, and flow of the language.

Does she exemplify the “programmed” individual or is she merely the recipient of experiential osmosis regarding language? Could it be a combination of both?

I doubt we’ll answer these questions adequately. What I find interesting is that within a matter of a few days or so, this writer went from never having written a line of verse to being able to hold her own with those who have written poetry for years. Is that talent or language ability? Is it a knack for taking the lyrical qualities of multiple languages and making a poetic soup to be served up for the masses?

This gal does dream in several languages at once, which in itself would make a marvelous psych study. Perhaps someone should volunteer that idea to a university near you. But, seriously, does that small dream ability allow her to utilize the rhythms of her various languages, stir in a bit of semantics, and serve up verse in multiple forms? That’s the question.

She also translates foreign poetry now into English so that more people can enjoy them. She likened this to  using “Math”. She claims that math is, for her, an English thing. BTW, did I mention that she’s an engineer who learned yet another language so that she could communicate more effectively with her clients? You now realize the magnitude of this gal’s abilities.

She writes beautiful non-fiction but claims not to enjoy it. Her fiction tackles those trials of life that many would shun as being too difficult or painful. And yet, her verse is filled, sometimes, with a lightness of touch and humor that would be the envy of many an older poet. For all of her talents and abilities, her attitude of continual learning and expansion keeps her in a “favorites” category for the writers who know her. We delight in her achievements and experiments since we nevr know she’ll come up with next.

Nevertheless, the question remains. How do we use the language with which we were born? When we write our first drafts, is the language reflective of our youth, or use a culmination of our experience and training?

I can only answer for myself on this one. There are times when the words flooding onto the keyboard seem to have come from someone I don’t even know. Why would I have used a phrase from the Victorian age? Why would I suddenly be thinking in dialect? Did I ever know another word for encapsulate?

I do question my own language. Maybe it comes with age, but I find myself slipping quietly into other personas as I write different things. And I ask myself, Is this shift because of what I’m writing this moment? Or, do I see myself as another person while I’m writing it?

As you can tell, I do question myself often about my own motives. But then, if the writer doesn’t do this questioning, how can she/he write characters that make sense, deal with problems and understand themselves?

The one thing I know for sure is that I never used language like the rest of my family, as a rule. I can accommodate a shift when I need to, but at home, I think and speak entirely differently than I do around my family. So ask yourself, where does your language come from and why do you speak and write the way you do? And do you shift your language to accommodate those around you? You don’t even have to speak a foreign language to do these things. But are you aware of doing them?

Just curious.


Categories: Writing and Poetry
  1. October 14, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Hi Clauds,

    In the case of a kinesthetic and experiential learner like myself, I have noted that the concept of mirroring reigns supreme. Many titles exist in the marketplace that treat Mirroring from psych perspective. While I have not read the bulk of the titles out there, the few that I read focus on mirroring as a means to “connect” with other people or even empathy in some cases.

    Based on my life experiences to date, I can say learn by example. I learn by trying something at least once and then years later I can repeat the activity successfully.

    At any rate, the concept of mirroring is much larger than that. What makes people rise up to a challenge? Where do they draw from? In my opinion, continual expansive learning or the one done via fits and starts boils down to which Model do we draw and imprint from. I think mirroring and imprinting skills most frequently associated with the young are alive and raging in the adults. I think it may be a matter of consciously applying them or not.

    To a certain extent, I come to an agreement with my brain “Yes, Brain, I know you are taking care of so much for me already. Please work with me on learning this because life will be easier for all us. We do not like when we get stressed and can’t get enough sleep… So yes, again, this a good idea because…. OK, now help me learn it.” Things go smoother for me when I have this little bit of inner chat.

    Just like I was done talking to my Brain last night and preparing it for NaNoWriMo. This is my first experience. This is my first novel. I asked what it needed and I listened. On my blog, I wrote about what the outcome of that conversation was.

    Sorry for rambling. But any conversation regarding learning and how people learn gets me going.


  2. October 18, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Hi Clauds,

    What an interesting subject! Being around extremely intelligent adults from baby hood on, I learned not only French as a first language but also English, and Spanish due to the vaqueros on the ranch. Unfortunately, with the death of my grandmother, my parents refused to speak anything but English so I have lost most of my French and Spanish languages. What I didn’t lose was the way I speak. I’ve never used “normal” language…the natural language of childhood and teen age years. I’ve always spoken as an adult, and a well-educated adult, at that.

    Until I was twelve, I also lived all over the US and foreign countries, due to a military father. I easily learned the languages of the country I was in, however short a time it was. At one time or another in my life, I have spoken German, Italian, French, spanish, Creole, Basque, and, briefly, Tagalog in Manila. The problem has always been that I learned to speak as an adult, not as a child, and this led to a great deal of ostracism in school, from elementary all though high school. I was thought to be “snobbish and stuck up.” When I studied Latin and French in high school, and spoke both fluently, this seemed to indicate more so than ever that I was an “intellectual snob” and definitely not someone to be considered for cheerleading or sororities or even, by the boys, for dating.

    Language defines us in many ways, and I have never attempted to “rearrage” my proclivity for using “big” words and concepts to satisfy the whims of others. Even when my children asked me why I was speaking in such a way that they did not understand, I simply told them to get their dictionary out and look the words up. I may have spent more time helping them learn to spell than most parents, but they also ended up with bigger and better vocabularies than most children their age ( as well as being better informed on how to use a dictionary and thesaurus by the time they entered middle school ! )

    I have regretted not being able to continue to speak, read and write the foreign languages that I learned as a child, but I’ve never regretted learning to speak my native language in the form and fashion that I did…and that I continue to speak it. Others sometimes look at me askance, even my adult children, but again, I never hesitate to tell them ( or my grandchildren) to “get out your dictionary!”


  3. October 21, 2009 at 5:42 am

    Hi, Clauds,
    This is an interesting topic. What it brings to my mind is the old adage that, “I’m not what you think I am and I’m not what I think I am. Rather, I am what I think you think I am.” I’m not sure if I quoted that correctly, but you get the idea.
    Doesn’t that, then, suggest that we each act and react according to how we perceive the person whose company we are in? I know that I act much differently around each of my friends than I do when I am alone with one of my children or my husband. And I have a different focus when I am with one son than with another and, especially when I am around my daughter. That doesn’t suggest that I love one more than another; only that I perceive each as how they see me. Don’t you imagine it is the same with every situation we face? Just curious about your take on this.

    By the way, I’ve passed an award along to you. It’s over on my blog. Just right click on the picture of the pretty award, copy and then paste onto your blog.

    ~ Yaya

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