Thursday, November 14, 2013

Auxiliary languages

OK, so the other day I was reminding myself (read: indulging in a bit of mild and yet inherently ridiculous self-pity) about the time consuming physical labor of parenting three small children. And all self-deprecation notwithstanding, I stand by that. Cooking meals, changing diapers, giving baths, running laundry, at a minimum making sure that choking hazards are up off the floor, these things all take a certain amount of time and energy. And that certain amount is “the vast majority of everything not devoted to work/commuting and sleep.”

But if I can pile it on a bit more, I might add that there are mental tolls to be paid as well, and one example I’ve been thinking about lately is my ever-expanding capacity for alternate forms of communication. It would probably seem like an inordinate number of my brain cells are dedicated to auto-translating varied primitive quasi-systems of speech, if I weren’t the kind of person who exalts the rational ability to build bridges of understanding above most (if not all) other things.

So, starting with the baby, who employs the simplest means of communication by default. He’s vocalizing a lot these days, nothing beyond simple ba-ba stuff but he’s known to let loose with some impressively sustenato yelling when the mood strikes him, which is frequently. It’s a bit of a mixed bag going through a third babyhood from the parental side, where on the one hand I can at least draw on some lessons learned from the other two to immediately discern the difference between a wordless shout for the sake of hearing his own voice and a wordless cry for help. Or more granularly, the difference between a cry of genuine physical pain because he’s knocked his head on something and a cry of emotional alarm because it has just dawned on him that neither parent is in his line of sight. Both will get him picked up, eventually, one more quickly than the other. (The key approach to three or more children: triage and prioritize.) On the other hand, every child is different, and it’s a rookie mistake to assume that the coos and caws of one baby translate perfectly and mean the same thing as similar-sounding coos and caws from the next. Even with body language that can be the case; one kid might arch his back to indicate that he’s hungry, while another might do it because he feels bloated and feeding him would be about the worst way to address it.

The little girl is age-appropriately verbal, much moreso than she was even a few months ago (my wife and I share some head-shaking and chuckling of late when we recall how we used to worry that our daughter might not have a strong enough personality to stand up to our older son). But her verbosity is still essentially pidgin English, though it’s exceedingly rare that I have to ask her to clarify what she’s trying to say, or even get her to repeat something. Mostly this strikes me when we’re around people who don’t interact with her every day, when I’m forced to consider what the little girl sounds like to untrained ears (English-inflected gibberish, mostly).

The little guy, as you might expect, has a good command of the language and (thankfully) doesn’t suffer from any speech impediments or peculiarities of language acquisition. Still, speaking his language is a distinct skill which differs from standard adult communication, mainly in aspects of getting on his wavelength and understanding (1) the jargon of his particular interests and (2) the extremely porous membrane between his imaginative inner life and the outside world. Consider this scenario: the little guy holds forth on some topic in an intense and animated way, and you suspect that despite his self-assured (borderline pedagogical) delivery, he may be making it all up. So you ask him, “Is that real?” and he answers, “I’m pretending that it’s real.” If you can parse that answer, you can have fruitful communication with the little guy, and if not, you will probably just end up doing a lot of smiling and nodding.

So those are my polyglot credentials, and I haven’t even gotten to the pets! They are basically in the same category as the baby with their growls and yowls and such. Much to my own surprise (and my wife’s complicated emotional reaction, where she’s not sure whether to be delighted that I apparently care enough to have acquired the ability, or to feel guilty that it’s for her sake that I’ve allocated my own gray matter accordingly) I can without hesitation tell the difference between subtle alterations in a dog’s whining, and I’m pretty sure even devoid of context clues I could tell which one means “I’m afraid of thunder” and which one means “I’m afraid this crawling infant is uncomfortably encroaching on my personal space.” Similarly, I can peg the meaning of meowing between “I want fresh drinking water” and “I ate too much grass whilst walking about outside earlier and am now about to vomit all over the rug”.

If I’ve dedicated my life to anything, it’s been simply training to gain as deep an understanding as possible of the world around me, particularly the people populating that world. Sometimes the world around me is the house I live in, and it’s all I can do with my waking consciousness to learn and keep straight the local lingo.

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