Friday, April 17, 2009

Language Luddite

Mid-way through high school, I realised that unlike primary school, learning things and being a 'A-Grade Smarty Pants' required a fair bit more effort than neat writing and creative title pages.

English and the arts subjects (home economics being the glaring exception - I failed sewing class) were still easy and enjoyable for me, but maths and science were awful.

What was even more awfuller (if that isn't in the dictionary yet, it should be) was French. Notwithstanding I was introduced to the language of love and rude shop keepers halfway in Scotland. The class of year eight students were already two-thirds of a year ahead of me, and I was told to sit down and try to keep up.

Staring at badly drawn cartoons depicting the exciting life of Jean Paul and hearing "Merci Beacoup" being spoken by Mr Urquhart in a thick Aberdonian burr was a challenge my 12 year old mind decided to reject. Miraculously I earned a 'C' grade at the end of the year but most adamantly did not select it as a year nine subject when I returned back to South Australia.

Even as an adult, this total incapacity to grasp anything outside the realms of Australian English remains embarrassingly strong. In karate class a couple of years ago, for example, our then seven-year old Sapphire was able to count to ten in Japanese within five minutes, but it took me another three months later before I could confidently make it to three ('sun'). When they used basic Japanese to describe the next move, I had to quickly (but subtlely) rubberneck the rest of the class and copy what they were doing.

I am utterly useless at playing Scrabble. After enduring the inevitable, "But you like writing, so how come you're so crap at it?" by the thrilled victor, I usually reply by swiping the board angrily, letting the tiny squares scatter around the room before whining about my total lack of mathematical and lateral thinking capacities to place words that make the most of triple letter and double word scores.

Having Sapphire around to question everything from a nine year old's perspective highlights my struggles with my first language even more.

"Hey Mum why does the word sword have a 'W' in it?"
"How come I can't say 'it happened on accident' instead of 'by accident' when it doesn't sound right?"
"How come we say one sheep, two sheep, but we say one mouse, two mice?"
"Why is the worst person, the one you hate the most in the world, called an 'arch' enemy?"

And what's my profound answer to those queries? Normally a compliment ('Good to see that you're absorbing words that you're reading, love') and this: "Well Sapphire, I reckon that English is sort of like the floor sweepings from the scraps of all the other languages of the world - a bit of French, a wedge of Latin, a splash of Spanish, a kick of German, a smattering of Danish and far too much drunken Igpay and Esperanto for my liking. Then, chuck in a handful of words that some drunken or ignorant clowns have invented along the way plus a bit of bad or adventurous spelling and that equals the English language as we know it today. OK?"

She tends to give me her 'Mum's a weirdo but she's my Mum so I won't say it out loud or she'll tell me off for being disrespectful, so I'll go and ask Dad instead' kind of look and heads outside to the shed where Love Chunks is at his weights bench or thoughtfully clipping his fingernails directly onto the lawn.

However, the mysteries of mastering my mother tongue - let alone any others - pale into insignificance when I'm confronted with a completely different form of language via the musical stylings of Love Chunks and Sapphire. LC's been playing the guitar and trumpet since he was in primary school, so he was easily able to sight-read music and pick up the piano (figuratively, not literally, despite his efforts in our tiny gym out in the shed) and has been doing so extremely well for the past three years.

Sapphire started guitar and viola lessons last year and has continued her lessons at Flemington Primary School in 2009. In addition, she still plays her humble wooden recorder as the mood strikes. When she gets home from school, drops her bag, has a snack and cuddles the rabbit she then heads off to her bedroom - her sanctuary - and the strums, scrapings or pipings of an Abba song, Ride of the Valkyries or the Wallace and Gromit theme tune soon floats up the hallway. Like her father, she too can sight-read music and will idly pick out a song on the piano as she passes, just by glancing at whichever sheet music LC's left on the stand.

This astounds me, because I learned piano for nearly three years as a child and could never, ever 'get' how to read sheet music; I just learned whichever piece I'd been given by rote and by playing it over and over until it sounded right. Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit and FACE did nothing to help me.

The thought of clever folk being able to see the black dots on little thin lines and have the ability to translate them to letters; then convert those letters to musical notes; and redefine those notes as keys to tap, strum, block or brush in a particular order is a skill that seems a combination of genius and savant-like. In my non-musical mind, it seems like having to understand English, French, Latin and Mandarin in a millisecond and then producing a song in an instant.

And of course it had to happen - Sapphire asked me if I'd play Scrabble with her today....*sigh*....


myninjacockle said...

I too hate scrabble and am embarrassed by how bad I am at it. Music also scares me and communicating in other languages nearly saw me poisoned on more than one occasion.

is it possible we are the same person simultaneously reincarnated?

Terence McDanger said...

My mother was so convinced of all my all round wordy worldliness (after a few teachers liked my essays etc.) that she would oft pop me down expectantly in front of Countdown on the telly and stand waiting for me to guess the anagrams in jig time.

I never could.

My mother never really liked me after that. I'm shite at scrabble and crosswords as well. Sigh indeed.

Baino said...

I love scrabble but never bother with the numbering side of it. I also remember putting stickers on piano keys to remind me what the notes were . . cheaters chopsticks I know but that's how I roll.

River said...

I think you're right, English does seem to be the swept together leftover bits of other languages.
istarted learning French in high school too, hated the sound, hated the teacher even more. Failed on purpose. I'd been put in the 1A class where we learnt Latin as well. By Failing French I was moved to the 1B class in second term, where,to my disgust, I still had the French, but not the Latin, which I loved and was good at. So I deliberately did badly in the French, unfortunately two terms of failing grade was enough to bring my entire grade down and I had to repeat the whole first year, this time in the 1C class, no languages at all. I quite enjoy a game of Scrabble, because I can spell well, but I don't care about the scoring part of it, 3 letter score, triple word score, pfft! Means nothing to me. We play for fun and to teach the younger family members how to read and spell.When they get good enough we drag out the extra boards and tiles and play right across the table.

Kath Lockett said...

Such a relief to know that I'm not the only one who sucks at Scrabble. Except for you, River - getting extra boards out and all!

Cerry said...

You should try upwords, Kath. It's like scrabble, only with about 1/100 of the tactical thinking. All you really have to be able to do is spell. I don't think I've ever, ever beaten my family at scrabble, but I actually win upwords on a fairly regular basis.