Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Language: A Love Affair

I don’t remember when I first learned about the existence of other languages. By the time I have consistent memories, it was just a given that everyone I knew spoke English,and that this mysterious thing called Spanish existed, and it meant that some people said words that my parents and most other adults I knew didn’t understand.

When I was four I learned how to count to ten in Spanish. I don’t even know where I picked it up. Preschool, perhaps? Or maybe it was Sesame Street. It’s lost to the mists of time at this point. But I loved this new way of counting. Being only four, the concept of counting in English was still pretty groundbreaking to me, so this new way pretty much blew my tiny little mind. I counted to ten over and over again, I’m sure driving my poor dear mother absolutely batty with each new round.  Uno, dos, trace, quatro, cinco, sace, sette, ocho, no-eve, jet! I would shout, in my absolutely gringoest accent. I didn’t know it then, but those ten words were the start of a love affair with language that has, so far, lasted my entire life. Since those first words of a foreign tongue, I have eagerly soaked up any and all language facts and foreign words that I could get my hands on.

When I was in the first grade, six or seven years old, I got to check out books from the school library for the first time. I remember very clearly finding an Italian language picture dictionary and checking it out. I pored over it, and noticed to my surprise that Italian and Spanish had very similar numbers. That was when I learned about language families for the first time. I also giggled about, and was slightly scandalized by, the fact that Italian for six was sex. That was my first introduction to the concept of false cognates, though it would be years before I learned that particular term. I was so disappointed when I had to return the book, and though I soon forgot most of the words I had learned as I got wrapped up in the serious business of being a first grader, I never forget how exciting it was to learn about languages, and how much hold they seemed to have over me.

When I was 18, I went away to college. I was unsure of what my major was going to be, but it was probably going to be something to do with language. Or music. Or teaching. Definitely something like that. At the end of my first semester, I was studying for finals, and decided to take a break. My roommate's linguistics textbook was sitting next to me on the couch, so I picked it up and flicked through it. And then went back and started at the beginning, because this stuff was fascinating and I wanted to read it all, right there and then. A couple of hours later, my roommate had to ask for her textbook back, so she could study for her final. I decided that day that linguistics was the major for me. I had no idea then what kind of awe-inspiring, fantastic voyage that decision would send me on as I learned about language, from the smallest sounds to the longest words, and everything in between.

Why am I telling you these random anecdotes about my past history with language? Because I want to get you, dear reader, to fall in love with language too. I hope to be able to instill in you at least a little of the wonder I felt all those years ago as I was learning about language for the first time, and the wonder I still feel sometimes as I contemplate some fascinating new concept or word. Language has been my constant companion, from my very first words, to the embarrassingly angsty poetry of my teenage years, through to today, on this blog. It’s a glorious journey. Let’s take it together.

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