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6/12/07 Linguistic stew

Sorry I've been so sporadic about blogging lately. This morning, I'm going to try to backfill the dates of the past few weeks, with blogs I've meant to write.

I learned from an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" that the human brain stores different languages in different parts of the brain.

I really don't think that's true.

In my experience, language is a big swirly stew pot, and any time you reach in, you're going to grab some of what you want but at the rise of grabbing something you don't.

When I speak French, my sentences are peppered with walayni instead of mais [but, in Tam and French respectively] and 3laqash instead of parce que [because, Arabic/French] and hakak where I should say c'est ca [that's it, Arabic/French].

When I speak English, I'm nearly always talking to other PCVs, so I semi-deliberately mix in words of Tam and Arabic...but sometimes it's not deliberate at all, like when I was talking with some American students, and used the phrase shHal aya [a long time ago, Tam/Arabic blend] to their complete confusion.

When I speak Spanish...I can't speak Spanish any more. I've never formally studied it, and never really even informally studied it (unless you count a few hours with Rosetta Stone). I just gleaned it from my students when teaching in a 98% Hispanic school in Houston. (Want to know how loose my learning was? It took me a year to realize that Hola! should be spelled with an H. In my head, I saw it as Ola!) Not long ago, a Berber salesman asked me to intervene for him with some confused Spanish tourists...and when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. Nothing. I was able to dredge up the word Ayuda (that's a blind guess on how to spell help) and problemo (ditto for problem), but I mostly guestured uselessly. They spoke to me, and I understood them fine through their (still-odd-to-my-ears) Castillian lisp, so the Spanish language is still somewhere in my head, but I absolutely failed to access it at will.

And it's not just me.

A few weeks back, when I was up at Peace Corps headquarters for a workshop, I overheard a Moroccan friend on the phone saying, "...kayn training wa kayn follow-up..." In Moroccan Arabic, kayn means there will be or there is or even some, depending on context, and wa means and, but the key nouns in the sentence were pure English. Clearly, he was speaking to someone else who's as fluent as he is in English, but whose first language, like his, is Arabic.

I felt comforted to a degree that surprised me; I hadn't realized how much I'd been kicking myself for my linguistic stew, and how much it helped to know that it's perfectly normal, and perfectly OK. As long as your audience understands you - and here in Morocco, everybody who speaks French also understands Arabic - does it actually matter what words you use?

As a friend kept reminding me during stage, the point of language is communication. If they can figure out what you said, you've already succeeded.

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